Sheep cannot be accused of woolly thinking, say scientists

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The Independent Online

They may look woolly-brained but don't be fooled by their dumb expressions; sheep have a remarkable memory for faces and may even form mental images of missing companions.

They may look woolly-brained but don't be fooled by their dumb expressions; sheep have a remarkable memory for faces and may even form mental images of missing companions.

A study of sheep psychology has found man's woolly friend can remember the faces of more than 50 other sheep for up to two years. They can even recognise a familiar human face. The hidden talents of sheep, revealed today by a study in the journal Nature, suggest they may be nearly as good as people at distinguishing faces in a crowd.

Keith Kendrick, a neuro-scientist at the Babraham Institute near Cambridge who led the investigation, said that the nervous system of a sheep recognised a face in the same way as humans. "They have specialised areas in the brain to help them to do this, which is much like humans. In humans this area is active not just when you see a face but when you think about that person when they are not around.

"Sheep form individual friendships with one another, which may last for a few weeks. It's possible they may think about a face even when it's not there." This raises the intriguing possibility that sheep apparently grazing without a thought in the world may be pining for a missing companion or even a favourite shepherd.

The researchers also found female sheep had a definite opinion about what made a ram's face attractive, Dr Kendrick said. "Don't ask me what it is, but certain facial cues of a male do attract females."

Recognising different faces in a flock must be important in helping sheep to arrange hierarchies as well as keep friends. During the experiments – where sheep had to choose between pairs of familiar and unfamiliar faces to get a food reward – the animals would form orderly queues with those at the top of the hierarchy first, Dr Kendrick said. "[So] it is important not to chop and change the social environment of sheep, which is evidently so important for their well being."

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