Are Sheep Silly?
We've been led to believe that sheep are silly animals. Indeed they are playful, but does this make them silly? Has the wool been pulled over our eyes?
The truth is, sheep are complex and intelligent beings. They make similar use of complex visual cues from the face to recognise each other, and other familiar species. Overall it is estimated they can recognise at least 50 different individuals, although in reality the actual figure is probably much higher than this.
They can also remember associations with specific faces for several years. Their recognition and memory abilities using faces are remarkably similar to those of humans.
Sheep have a strong flocking instinct. Due to this reluctance to act independently of one another, sheep have been seen as 'stupid'. This is not the case. Their main protection from predators is to group together and follow the sheep in front of them. If a predator is threatening the flock this is not the time to act independently.
A study of sheep pyschology has found that they are able to remember faces of more than 50 other sheep for up to two years. They even recognise familiar human faces.
A study in the journal Nature suggest sheep may be nearly as good as people at distinguising faces in a crowd.
Sheep form individual friendships. It is possible they may think about a face even when it's not there.
Research done here in Australia demonstrates that sheep can learn and remember. Researchers have developed a complex maze to measure intelligence and learning in sheep. Researches have concluded that sheep have excellent spatial memory and are able to learn and improve their performance.
Scientists from Cambridge University discovered that sheep have brain power equal to rodents, monkeys, and in some tests, humans.
Whilst it's important to acknowledge that sheep are indeed clever, it is also important that we keen in mind that a being's intelligence, as measured by humans, should not be the measure of their moral significance.
The life of a Lamb in Australia
We all love seeing baby lambs, they are the very picture of innocence. But what is life like for lambs in Australia?
Approximately 60 million lambs are born in Australia each year.
Many are bred to be born at the coldest time of year, this is so they can be fattened on spring pastures ready for market. Tiny and vulnerable, up to 15 million of these lambs will die within the first 48 hours of their birth.
Lambs born as a multiple birth (a twin or triplet) have a far lower survival rate. Despite this, the Australian Sheep industry continues to selectively breed animals to favour multiple births, some sheep now giving birth to up to six lambs at a time.
Before human intervention sheep naturally shed their wool. Some breeds, usually those farmed for their meat, still do.
Today the most common breed of sheep in Australia is the Merino. These sheep have been selectively bred to not only retain their wool, but to have excess wrinkles of skin so that they produce more wool.
This extra skin can cause problems. The folds of skin create moist areas that are a perfect environment for flies to lay their eggs. Known as fly-strike, this painful and potentially fatal condition is where fly larvae (maggots) begin to eat the sheep's flesh.
In an attempt to reduce this risk, when lambs are between 1 to 8 weeks old, they will be subjected to a number of procedures. Despite having the same capacity to suffer, sheep aren't protected under the same laws as dogs and cats. Lambs can be subjected to a process called "mulesing", where the skin from their bottoms is sliced off, usually at the same time their tails are removed. Legally these procedures can be done with no pain relief.
Do sheep have tails?
Yes! Sheep are naturally born with tails.
They use their tails to express themselves, but also to help expel waste from their bodies and to chase away flies.
On most sheep farms, lambs have their tails removed at a young age, usually without anaesthetic. This is done as with the large numbers of sheep kept on commercial farms, it is considered too hard to keep the sheep clean and soiled bottoms can attract flies.
Ironically, removing sheep's tails can exacerbate the problem of their bottoms becoming soiled as they are less able to propel their waste from their bodies. Sheep can live quite well with the tails nature intended for them. Although naturally sheep would have shed their wool and thus had less wooly tails during the warmer months, now that some have been bred to retain their wool, they can still be kept clean if provided with the proper level of care and maintenance.
How long do sheep live?
Sheep can live 12-14 years.
In the Australian sheep industry - many are killed at just 6-8 months old for their meat (lamb).
Sheep raised for wool are almost always killed for meat. Their wool production wanes as they age and they become less commerically viable. They will be killed well before their natural lifespan is reached.
Do sheep need to be shorn?
Before human intervention, sheep naturally shed their wool. Over time, humans selectively bred sheep to retain their wool so that we could harvest it for our own purposes.
Nowadays these sheep have become completely dependent on us for their survival. Even one years worth of fleece growth can be perilous to sheep in hot weather and it is important they are shorn.
Many sheep still shed their own wool as they all originally did. These breeds are typically those used for their meat, and they have generally also been selectively bred to grow much larger and stockier than their wool retaining brothers and sisters.
As prey animals, shearing is a very stressful experience for sheep. They are held on their backs and restrained whilst the shearers remove their wool. Usually shearers are paid on the basis of number of sheep shorn in a timeframe, and as their goal is to get as many sheep shorn as quickly as possible. This, combined with the selective breeding of sheep to have wrinkly skin so that they have a larger wool-producing surface, can lead to knicks and cuts, often left untreated.