The Weekly Bleat: Not Baaad!
Farmguy and I have had our little flock of woollies for about ten years. And, while they are truly the spirit of Green Hill Farm, gracing its fields and pastures with their quiet beauty (with the exception of Hamish and his incessant baaahs for grain), there are a few things you may not know about these interesting and intelligent animals.
To start with, their wool will grow forever. A sheep, depending on the breed, can produce between two and 30 pounds of wool a year. Also, one pound of wool can make up to 10 miles of yarn. Besides producing lots and lots of wool, sheep have another special ability—they have nearly 360 degree vision. Sheep have rectangular pupils that give them amazing peripheral vision; it’s estimated that their field of vision is between 270 and 320 degrees (humans average about 155 degrees). This is really important, especially when you’re a prey animal…it’s like surround sound for the eyes.
Not only do these woollies have special eyes, they have special lips as well. The upper lip of a sheep has a pronounced groove dividing the left and right side, called a philtrum. Sheep are very selective grazers, preferring leaves and blades over stems, and their philtrum helps them get close to the ground. This gives them an advantage over other ruminants who can’t go as low.
And, it’s really interesting that sheep, who have such fascinating faces, are so observant of and responsive to the faces of others—just like humans. Research is now uncovering similarities in how the sheep brain and the human brain process visual information. Keith Kendrick, professor of cognitive and behavioral neuroscience at the Babraham Institute near Cambridge, found that when sheep are suffering from separation anxiety, seeing photographs of the faces of a familiar breed of sheep can reduce their stress. “Sheep are much like us in that they recognize each other’s faces in photographs,” comments Kendrick. “They have the same specialized part of the brain as humans do to help them recognize and remember faces.” Not only can sheep be calmed by seeing photographs of the faces of a familiar breed of sheep, they can also read and respond to emotional cues from both human and sheep faces. Professor Kendrick’s work shows that sheep react to facial expressions and prefer a human face that is smiling to one that shows anger, and a calm, contented sheep face to a stressed and anxious one.
Kendrick’s research also shows that female sheep found the faces of some male sheep more attractive than others; apparently, the areas of the brain governing emotional responses became activated when they saw the faces of males they preferred. He also found that females were more interested in older rather than younger males. Even more amazing, male sheep were found to prefer mates that resemble their mothers. Kendrick has concluded from his studies that sheep have “a far greater level of social awareness and emotional complexity than we had previously thought.”
One of my favorite facts regarding sheep is that they have been shown to recognize at least fifty different individual sheep and ten different human faces, and they can remember these faces even when they haven’t seen them for two years or more. Plus, sheep can form strong attachments to certain people. These charming animals may express their affection by nuzzling their heads against their human friends. I’ve personally experienced this with our sweet woollies, Clover and Hamish.
And, in case you didn’t know, U.S. presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison all raised sheep. In fact, Madison was sworn in wearing a coat spun from his sheep’s wool, and Woodrow Wilson kept a flock at the White House during World War I to keep the grass trimmed as a cost-cutting measure and to show support for the war effort.
These woolly creatures melt the hearts of those lucky enough to spend time with them. Thank you for joining us for this tour of trivia and a little stroll around Green Hill Farm. 🙂