How long have sheep been farmed?
Sheep have been bred for over 10,000 years for their meat, milk and wool, with over 2,000 domesticated breeds now in existence. Despite the fact that sheep have been kept in the company of humans for such a long time, they have kept many of the behavioural characteristics of their wild ancestors. Whereas some types of farm animal have been bred to be more docile, the natural anti-predator behaviours of sheep, such as flocking and fleeing, have been maintained because these behaviours are useful to shepherds when moving sheep on foot.
Sheep are grazing animals that eat grasses and other low-growing vegetation and ruminate (chew the cud). They spend most of the day alternating between periods of grazing and resting/ruminating, and sleep for only around 4 hours per day.
Sheep are highly social animals - they always like to be around other sheep they are familiar with and find isolation from their flock stressful. They form strong social hierarchies (‘pecking orders’) within their flocks, and sometimes show aggression (butting) to maintain these. Aggression often happens when unfamiliar sheep are mixed together.
Sheep flock closely together whenever they feel threatened, and try maintain a ’flight distance’ between themselves and a potential threat. They have good eyesight, with a wide field of vision, and accurate hearing with which to spot any possible threats.
Because they are prey animals they have evolved not to show easily recognisable signs of suffering. For example, sick or injured sheep do not vocalise loudly because, in the wild, this could attract the attention of a predator. This stoical (inexpressive) nature means that people unfortunately often don’t spot the subtle changes in behaviour that may indicate sheep are in pain or distress.
Adaptations to cope with the weather
Sheep’s wool contains a waxy substance called lanolin, which helps sheep to stay dry during wet weather. Some breeds are known for their ‘hardiness’ and ability to cope with bad weather, though this is not true of all breeds/ages, and sheep often choose to seek out shelter. Sheep have a similar tolerance to warm weather as humans do, and they pant when heat stressed.
Sheep are often unfairly thought of as being of ‘low intelligence’, probably because of their tendency to behave fearfully towards humans, their inexpressive nature, and because of their social flocking behaviours. However, scientific evidence indicates that sheep can form complex social relationships within their flocks and have extremely good learning abilities and memories. In one study sheep were able to remember pictures of faces of at least 50 other sheep over a period of several years. Sheep have also been known to solve complex problems, such as learning to roll across cattle grids to get to tastier grass!