Despite the stereotypes, sheep are very intelligent social animals with good memories. They remember the sheep and humans they’ve met and form lasting friendships with their flock mates.


At one time all sheep were wild. They were domesticated by humans some time around 10,000 BC in Southwestern Asia when humans decided to start using their fleece and meat. There are still 4 types of wild sheep roaming the earth today: the Urial in South-West Asia, the Argali in Central Asia, the Mouflon in the central islands of the Mediterranean, and the Bighorn in the Rocky Mountains of North America. Domestic sheep are descended from the Mouflon and one other unidentified ancestor. Selective breeding has led to over forty different types of domestic sheep.

Sense and Sensibility

Scientists are beginning to realize that sheep have pretty good memories. Keith Kendrick, a neuro-scientist at the Babraham Institute near Cambridge, thinks that the sheep’s brain recognizes a face in the same way a human’s does. In a study that Kendrick led, a sheep was able to correctly identify a human face on a screen 50 times in 50 chances. The sheep that participated in the study could also remember the faces of up to 50 of their sheep friends, even when they hadn’t seen them for years.

Rather than stand around dumbly, sheep have been known to collectively tackle the obstacles they encounter as a group. Sheep in the Yorkshire moors of England taught themselves to roll over 3-metre metal cattle grids in order to raid the gardens of villagers. The animals had also learned to jump 1.5m fences and squeeze through 8 inch gaps.

The herd stays together and co-operates for protection. First, one sheep will venture away from the group. A second sheep follows then signals to the rest of the herd that it is safe to follow, too. The sheep that act as adventurers and signalers tend to do so throughout their lives.

Sheep have feelings and use various sounds to communicate different emotions and messages amongst themselves. Mark Feinstein, a cognitive science professor and expert in bioacoustics at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, thinks that sheep express stress by altering the tone of their vocalizations, or the overall quality of sounds instead of changing the pitch or loudness of their calls. Even a human can easily tell when a sheep is in pain or sick from the tone of the noises it makes.

Sheep seem to form individual friendships with each other, grazing or hanging out with the same pal consistently. Researchers believe that, like humans, sheep actually think about their sheep friends and acquaintances even when those sheep are not around. They also become upset when their sheep friends are missing from the flock.

A Feast Fit for Sheep

Sheep eat grass, clover, and various weeds, with weeds tending to be their first choice. Sheep will spend around seven hours a day grazing, mostly in the hours around dawn and sunset. The amount of grazing land that it takes to feed a sheep depends on the quality of the soil, the amount of rainfall that it receives, and the management of the pasture. In dry climates, an acre of pasture or rangeland cannot feed as many sheep, and they will usually have to travel greater distances for food and water. When fresh food isn’t available, domestic sheep are fed stored hay or silage.

Like their relatives goats, cows, and camels, sheep are ruminants, meaning that they digest their food in two steps. First they eat their raw plant food and then regurgitate the semi-digested form called cud, which they chew and re-swallow. They have four stomach chambers to help with their complicated digestion.

Did you know?

  • Without any human interference, sheep grow just enough wool to protect themselves from temperature extremes. Fleece doesn’t only protect the sheep from cold; it also provides effective insulation from heat!
  • Rams are male sheep, ewes are female sheep, and lambs are baby sheep.
  • Ewes have a definite opinion on what makes a ram’s face attractive.
  • Farmers have reported that sheep who’ve changed hands will often find their way back to the flock they originally came from if they get lost.
  • Ewes usually give birth to twin lambs.
  • Selective breeding has caused sheep to develop more wool and less hair, and their wool colour to change from browns to more uniform whites and blacks.
  • Sheep can live anywhere from 11 to 16 years.
  • Sheep can see much more than humans. They have a 270Ëš radius of view, almost 3/4 of a circle. Humans only see 170Ëš at best. This makes sheep very difficult to sneak up on or surprise.
  • Sheep would rather walk up-hill than down.

What makes sheep and goats different?

  • Goats are lively animals and very curious. What we call a plain old goat is a domesticated subspecies of the wild goat. Along with sheep, cows, and antelopes, goats belong to the bovine family. Just like deer, a female goat is called a doe while the males are called bucks. They are also known as nannies and billies respectively. Young goats are called kids.
  • Goats have straight hair, which is different than sheep’s wool. The buck also has a beard, a tuft of hair that hangs down under his chin.
  • Goats are happy living in herds with other goats or by themselves. Sheep always stay in groups.
  • Sheep are more likely to overeat than goats if they have access to more food than they need. They often fall prey to enterotoxemia or "overeating" disease.
  • Sheep are grazers, while goats are browsers. That means sheep eat grasses and other plants all the way down to the ground. Goats, on the other hand, nibble here and there, sampling a variety of bushes and leaves.
  • It is widely believed that goats will eat everything left in their path. This misconception probably stems from the fact that they tend to chew on a lot of things without actually eating them. Goats prefer to eat shrubs and weeds.
  • Among the best climbers in the world, goats will climb trees if the angle and the bark allow them to get a footing. They’ve even been known to get onto roofs by climbing neighbouring trees. They almost never fall or slip, and can even jump from rock to rock. Sheep, on the other hand, are much less sure-footed and can easily fall and get stuck upside down.
  • Sheep are more resilient in the face of bad weather than goats.
  • Both sheep and goats will always run away from danger, but they will try to defend themselves if they end up cornered. By stamping a front foot to the ground, a sheep or goat warns his attacker that he is about to charge.


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