Insomniac sheep can count on... sheep

How do you get an insomniac sheep to go to sleep? If new research is to be believed you could always get it to count ... sheep.

Cambridge scientists have found that worried ewes and rams relax when shown pictures of their fellow ungulates. They believe the technique could be used to calm them down when sick, solitary or being shipped around the country.

Unlike Greta Garbo, sheep do not want to be alone. But like Groucho Marx they are good at remembering faces. Research has shown that they can remember the monikers of up to 50 sheep and 10 humans for up two months.

So scientists at the Brabaham Institute wondered if photos of other sheep might reassure the anxious animals. They isolated 40 Welsh sheep and began by showing them pictures of triangles, but they got no calmer. But once they showed them faces of other sheep, they report in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, their heart rates went back to normal, their stress fell by half and their bleating dropped 20-fold.

While they ignored the triangles, they were seen to look actively at the sheep faces, and even moved closer to them to see them better.

The researchers believe showing them pictures of sheep from their own flock might work even better. But that could have risked sending stress levels soaring again when their mother-in-laws came on screen.

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