Clever boy! Sheep recognise faces. They self-medicate. They're clever, dammit...

Sheep are not so dumb after all. New research shows that they self-medicate when they are ill. They can also identify and remember faces, both human and ovine, distinguish between happy and depressed expressions, and tell one sheep's bleating from another.

Scientists have discovered that sick sheep can accurately self-medicate for stomach problems. When sheep were given food than made them unwell, they were able to select and eat the right cures for constipation and heartburn. "People learn to take aspirin for headaches and antacids for stomach aches... Is it also possible that herbivores write their own prescriptions?" ask the researchers.

They say that from prehistoric times, people have believed that animals self-medicate, but that until now it has not been clear whether sheep can spot medicinal compounds when ill.

In the research, published this week, lambs were given foods that led to mild ill health, and then given a choice of compounds known to ease the symptoms. The animals were able to accurately spot and eat the specific compound that would cure their ill. "This is the first demonstration of medicine preferences in animals," say the researchers from Utah State University.

Sheep have enjoyed an improvement in their public profile, thanks to Dolly the cloned sheep and Sean fromWallace and Gromit. Nevertheless they are widely viewed as stupid.

But according to neuroscientist Keith Kendrick, Gresham professor of physics at Cambridge University, this is not true. "We now have a fair amount of evidence that sheep are not dumb. In fact, they can be quite cunning in terms of getting in and out of things, and coming back and looking as if they never went out in the first place,"

Professor Kendrick and his team have been investigating the face and emotion recognition among sheep and will publish their findings later this year.

"It is a review of how sheep process faces and emotions. We have found that sheep can recognise both human faces and emotions, and emotional changes on sheep faces. They are also able to form mental images of faces. They can recognise at least 50 different faces, and remember them for a couple of years or more," he says. "They are quite sophisticated in their social environment. They know what a happy face looks like compared to an angry one."

Researchers at the French Behavioural Ecology Group have also found that ewes are able to recognise the individual sounds of their lambs, suggesting that baas, which appear to the human ear to be all the same, may be unique to each individual.

"Our results show that ewes and their lambs can recognise each other based solely on their calls," they say.

All of which raises the question why they allow themselves to be bossed around by one man and a dog.


From Monty Python's Flying Circus

(A tourist approaches a shepherd)

Tourist: Good afternoon.

Shepherd: Eh, 'tis that.

Tourist: Uh... those ARE sheep aren't they?

Shepherd: Yeh.

Tourist: Only, what are they doing up in the trees?

Shepherd: A fair question... It's my considered opinion that they're nestin'.

Tourist: Like birds?

Shepherd: Exactly. These sheep are laborin' under the misapprehension that they're birds... Witness their attempts to fly from tree to tree. Notice that they do not so much fly as ... plummet. [Baaa baaa ... flap flap flap ... whoosh ... thud]

Tourist: Yes, but why do they think they're birds?

Shepherd: Another fair question. One thing is for sure, the sheep is not a creature of the air. They have enormous difficulty in the comparatively simple act of perchin'.

[Baaa baaa ... flap flap flap ... whoosh ... thud]

Trouble is, sheep are very dim. Once they get an idea in their 'eads, there's no shiftin' it.

Tourist: But where did they get the idea?

Shepherd: From Harold. He's that most dangerous of creatures, a clever sheep ...

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions