Are You Sheepish?
After all this time, sheep still get a bad rap! Many people seem to think that sheep are stupid! I would have to debate that judgment.
Yes, sheep tend to be followers. They stick together, defend and intervene on behalf of a weaker sheep in a fight, and establish long term relationships. So what’s wrong with that? It works quite well until they follow the bellwether (the leader of the flock that wears a bell) up the plank to the slaughter house. Hence, the quote by George Washington: If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.
Sheep are really quite sociable and dependant on one another. Research has proven that sheep recognize each other and have impressively good (and long), memories. They jump and bounce and play with their cohorts. They are joyful! Sheep have much stronger feelings and emotions than many humans give them credit for.
PRESERVATION AND LIMITATIONS
Sheep are prey animals with few natural defenses. They, therefore, depend on the old adage of safety in numbers. The most dominant sheep in the flock will not lead it, but rather place himself in the centre of the flock where it’s position will offer the utmost protection from predators. They will stay very close together, circling as a group to make it very difficult for predators to single them out and capture an individual sheep or lamb. Tactically speaking, the chance of being caught and eaten goes down proportionate to the size of the flock. Bigger is better! Not so dumb, are they?
After you have spent some quality time with sheep, you will realize that their wariness is what will make sheep scatter and run the wrong way. They are rather frustrating, escape artists. They will run the wrong way or circle when you try to maneuver them and can get out of fences and pens before you know what happened.
Every animal, most especially prey animals, have personal space, or flight distance, sometimes referred to as the flight initiation distance (FID). It is the area surrounding the animal that if encroached on by a predator (or human),will cause alarm and escape behavior. It’s a fear response. Sheep will naturally move away when you enter their flight zone. The more familiar your sheep are with you, the smaller the size of their flight zone will be with you
Sheep’s vision does not allow them to see things the way we do. They see vertical and horizontal, colours and size, differently than we do. Rather than using scent as a means to know their environment, like other animals, sheep use their vision. They can see things at a distance better than we do, but large things close-up are difficult for them to see. They have horizontal slit-shaped pupils that gives them amazing peripheral vision, allowing them to see behind them without turning their heads. But they can’t see horizontal bars on a gate, so don’t be too surprised if they bump into it repeatedly. Not stupid! Just visually challenged.
Be aware of the sheep’s flight zone as well as the limitations of their vision when you are moving them. Limit stress to the animals. Animals that are stressed or in pain will have a larger flight zone. It is important to respect the animal’s space when directing them into a pen or paddock. Move slowly behind their shoulder and into the flight zone of the one on the outside as you shut the gate behind them. . If you think about a herding dog, the dog will step to the sheep’s back to move them forward. If the dog steps in front they will change direction
Sheep are very timid and may become alarmed by sudden changes such as, light to dark, shadows, and reflections. Don’t have them running into a solid wall. They will need enough room to stay close as a flock and turn around together. These sorts of issues can make it difficult to get sheep to run into a paddock.
Sheep in a smaller group will be more tense and wary than sheep in a large group. Reducing their stress is critical to getting the best response from your animals.
It is always important to understand the animals natural abilities and behaviors in order to be able to work effectively together. It is stressful for you and the animal if you are working against them rather than with them. Be sure to set up the environment to work compatibly with your animal’s natural behavior. In my mind, sheep prove themselves to be far from stupid, and pretty loveable overall.