Watching and learning

Although many scientists who work with sheep will not admit it, sheep learn from others within the flock. Those of us who raise sheep see it plainly in so many ways. From their mothers, they learn what to eat and how much, as they graze alongside them as lambs. When one sheep figures out how to open a gate, it’s only a short while before others learn the same trick.

It is for this reason that we house our first-time pregnant ewes with our experienced girls, starting weeks before they are due. These young gals initially go into the drop pen to simply observe what is happening — and the appropriate response to what looks like a squirming pile of goo that has emerged from the birth canal. We know there is instinct there, but that bit of instinct works ever so much better when the behavior is also modeled by experienced members of the flock. And the drop pen is the best place to discover what to do with a newborn lamb.

Omega gave birth to our first Romney lambs yesterday, two days early. Qash, who isn’t due until Thursday, has been in the drop pen for a while but has shown little interest in previous births. Yesterday, however, was quite different. When I went out to feed in the morning, it was obvious that Omega was in the early stages of labor. Most of the other ewes in the drop pen were more interested in the feed I was doling out than in what their pen mate was up to, but it wasn’t long before Qash stopped eating and started watching. By this time, Omega was seriously pushing, and Qash stood about ten feet away, staring at what was going on with her friend.

As tiny black hooves emerged from under Omega’s tail, Qash backed up another step or two; she couldn’t go much further since the drop pen is not very big. She tucked herself into the corner, where she could see what was happening but could also feel safe. Whatever had taken over her friend Omega looked terribly uncomfortable, and Qash didn’t want to be too close!

Qash —  stepping forward and back, curious but afraid — watches Omega mother her newborn daughter, Rho.

Omega was a trooper and pushed out her first lamb with determination. As soon as the lamb was out, I pulled her around to Omega’s head so that she could lick her newborn without having to stand up. As the wet and gooey lamb began to raise its head and call to its mother, Qash was obviously confused. She couldn’t help coming forward to see what this enticing new creation was, but on the other hand, the whole thing also looked a bit scary. She stared for a long time, taking two steps forward and then jumping back whenever the lamb called out, over and over again. At times, she would look to me as if there was some way I could explain it to her — but since my actual words meant nothing to her, I just murmured  softly and encouraged her to come forward.

Qash looks to me to explain what she sees — this lump of goo that has become a newborn lamb before her eyes!

It took Qash a long time to become brave enough to sniff at the new arrival, but once she did, you could see the fear ebb away. She began to lick her lips, obviously tapping into the instinct that entices a ewe to lick at her newborn lambs. Qash looked a bit confused as she started to lick, particularly because I prevented her from licking this lamb. I wanted her to know that, yes, licking was correct, but she had to save it for her own lambs. This one and the other one just now coming belonged to Omega.

It took Qash (L) a long time to feel comfortable enough to sniff at Omega’s newborn. Once she did, however, she began to lick her lips, tapping into the instinct that will help her mother her own lamb.

The second lamb was a big ram lamb, and Omega was obviously happy to mother her two lambs. Qash continued to watch from a distance, and once I moved the new family into a lambing jug (pen), she closely inspected the spot where the lambs had been born. She sniffed a lot and often licked her lips — the serious look on her face as she sniffed the entire area made me chuckle. Yes, Qash is now close enough to delivering her own single lamb that it could come at any time — and because of this experience with Omega, I now believe that she is ready. But only time will tell.

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  • Jane M says:

    Okay, I really want to know why scientists don’t think sheep learn from other sheep. Is this some hierarchy of animals who they think do or don’t learn? Also, you specify scientists who work with sheep so how are they missing it? I would think the gate thing would be absolutely a knockout argument.

    • Dee says:

      I think that part of the problem is that scientists don’t really live with sheep in the same way that small flock owners do. We get to know not only the flock as a whole, but also have relationships with each of the individuals that make up the whole. One can look at a flock of sheep as a single entity, or see it as a group of individuals – if you only pop in occasionally to measure some particular trait, you are more likely so see the flock as a unit without seeing the individuals.

      I also think that the mental and emotional lives of animals have been underestimated for a very long time, but it seems that this may be starting to change. (There is a very good book on this subject – not of sheep, but of the animal kingdom in general – called Animal Wise: How We Know Animals Think and Feel by Virginal Morell). Also, researchers that work with sheep are often working with a large number of white sheep, and that makes observations of any one individual difficult – even I have trouble telling our white ewes apart immediately following shearing! I’ve found that many of the conclusions of studies with sheep are true of the flock, but not so much of the individuals. One example that immediately pops to mind (having to do with wool rather than behavior): we are told through various studies that wool does not change throughout the life of a sheep – and through knowing the individuals in my flock, I know that this is untrue – and can prove it through testing we have done. Yet, when you look over the studies that speak to this issue, they look at flocks of hundreds or thousands of sheep and have drawn conclusions based on the fact that the range of crimp, staple length, or fiber diameter remains stable for that flock from year to year. This is not actually a measure of what happens to one individual sheep – rather, it is an average over the group at various ages and circumstances. Yet, the conclusion drawn is that this consistency from year to year applies to the individuals that make up the whole – and that isn’t a sound conclusion, as it turns out.

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