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Sheep Smart -

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Sheep Smart

Reporter: Dr Paul Willis

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19 July 2007

Sheep are not often thought of as smart creatures - behaving like a flock of sheep is a cliché for
acting as a mob without thought. Perhaps because sheep have been assumed to be dumb, no one had
previously thought to find out just how smart sheep are and if their intelligence can be used to
improve their care and productivity. Now researchers at the University of New England have been
putting sheep through simple intelligence tests and it turns out they are smarter than we expected.
But just how do you measure the intelligence of a sheep and does it do them any good?


Dr Paul Willis:If you're like me you've probably never thought of sheep as being particularly smart
creatures. But research conducted here at the CSIRO in New England not only suggests they're
smarter than we previously thought, and that they've got better memories, but these are features we
can use to better manage them into the future.

NARRATION:It must be the ultimate metaphor for unthinking, instinctive and stupid behaviour.

These animals are, after all, "behaving like a flock of sheep".

Dr Caroline Lee:Sheep actually have a very strong flocking instinct because that's developed for
them to survive in the wild and protect them from predators. So when we try and take a sheep away
from the flock, it doesn't do what we want it to do, so it comes across as being stupid.

NARRATION:Always questioning the sheep dogma, Caroline Lee wondered just how smart sheep really

And what sort of IQ test do you devise for a sheep?

Dr Paul Willis:Cow is to moo as sheep is to...


Dr Caroline Lee:Well we wanted to measure cognition and learning in sheep using the maze, and we
measure them and then over subsequent days, we normally do three consecutive days, it actually
measures how quickly they learn and remember.

Dr Paul Willis:So it's just like putting rats in a maze in a laboratory just that we're in a
paddock and we're using sheep?

Dr Caroline Lee


Dr Caroline Lee:Well sheep have a really strong flocking instinct, so we've used that motivation to
enable them to get through the maze.

When they enter the maze they can view their flock-mates up one end and see through the see-through
fence panels and then it navigates its way and is motivated to join them.

This sheep has actually gone through and this is its third occasion and you can see it actually
doesn't make any errors at all and goes straight through without entering any cul-de-sacs.

Dr Paul Willis:That's amazing!

Dr Paul Willis:And what have you found out? Are they actually smart?

Dr Caroline Lee:We've found that sheep have excellent spatial memory ability. They're able to
improve their performance over three consecutive days of testing. And then they can actually, when
we've tested them a year later, we've found that they've actually retained their memory of the maze
for a whole year.

Dr Paul Willis:And in your testing so far, have you come across an Einstein sheep, one that's just
a sheep genius?

Dr Caroline Lee:We've come across sheep that perform very well in the maze, and some of them can
actually complete the maze, I think the record was 12 seconds for one sheep.

Dr Paul Willis:I don't think I could do it in 12 seconds!

Dr Paul Willis:Complete the phrase, to improve standards is to raise the ...


NARRATION:Nicky Roberts wanted to know how readily sheep could learn a specific task. And to do so,
she had to apply a little heat.

Dr Paul Willis:It's really hot in here!

Nicky Roberts: It is hot yes, we've actually got the temperature set at 35 degrees with 70%

Dr Paul Willis:And why do you need to do that?

Nicky Roberts: Well what we're actually doing is, we can change the temperature, that's our
hottest. We're going to put the sheep in here where this pen is at 20 degrees and see how much they
want to move from the hot to the cold.

Dr Paul Willis:So the sheep can actually choose to get comfortable?

Nicky Roberts: They can, yeah.

NARRATION:Time to stand back and watch the experiment unfold with fellow researcher Andrew Fisher.

Dr Paul Willis:So the sheep now has the opportunity to get into that room but it.. how many times
has it got to press the pad to get in there?

Nicky Roberts

She's going to have to press it ten times.

Dr Paul Willis:That's some effort on its behalf.

Nicky Roberts: It is yeah, but it's pretty hot in that room and she should really want to get into
the cool.

Dr Andrew Fisher: What we've found, like this sheep, because it's 35 degrees it really wants to get
in there, but at lower temperatures the sheep doesn't want to get in there quite as much.

Dr Paul Willis:And there's ten times, there she goes.

Dr Andrew Fisher: Well done!

Dr Paul Willis:Clever Sheep!

Dr Paul Willis:Which is the odd one out? Rosemary, Mint, Lamb?

Sheep: Baaaa!

NARRATION:OK, so sheep can learn and they can let us know when they're feeling hot. Who cares? It's
not like we want to breed Mensa Merinos!

Dr Andrew Fisher: It's really well known that if you actually place an animal in an optimal
environment then it grows better, it reproduces better and the quality of the wool or the meat or
the milk that results from it is also better. So we know that if we can identify the temperatures
that are good for the sheep, that the sheep feel good about, then we know that there'll be a
productivity spin-off for the producer as well.

NARRATION:And, if sheep can learn, that also allows for the development of new technologies like

The sheep have learnt that if they go through this walkover weigh station they'll get a food

So the sheep weigh themselves without any human intervention, saving quite a bit of labour for the

Dr Paul Willis:Mutton dressed as lamb. Discuss.


Dr Paul Willis: Are we looking at the idea of maybe breeding smarter sheep, selecting for smarter
sheep to make husbandry even easier?

Dr Andrew Fisher: I think it's better off to design the system to suit the animal than to try and
re-design the animal to suit a particular system.

NARRATION:In the end it's all about better management of sheep, because a contented flock is a more
productive flock.