Leading article: Sheep - an apology

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The Independent Online

There will be some readers, we fear, who will not take seriously our report today about the intelligence of sheep. There are still far too many people in this country who use sheep analogies in a thoughtless, hurtful and derogatory way. The word is used to imply someone who possesses no independence of thought, who is a passive follower of trends. Such lazy stereotypes, and the infantile sniggering and insensitive sniping that often accompany them, do a considerable disservice to a proud species.

There are also important issues over use of the word sheepish to mean embarrassed, lacking in confidence or looking a bit guilty. And the prejudice from Roman times in the word barbarian, which, as every schoolchild knows, derived from the insult that the languages of uncivilised non-Roman tribes consisted of sheep-like syllables.

None of this is fair. Sheep are cleverer than many ill-informed humans think. They recognise each others' faces and know what to eat to cure themselves if they are ill. Far from their bleating being an undifferentiated baa, they can identify each other from their cries. Ovine aviation may be some way from getting off the ground, as it were, but it cannot be ruled out for ever. A little more research will no doubt reveal a complex language structure and the ability to resolve differential equations.

Sheep. Respect.