5 cool facts about sheep most of us don’t know

Today there are over one billion sheep in the world. Sheep are adorable creatures who have lived closely alongside humans for millennia. But how much do we really know about sheep and their secret lives? 🐑

1. Sheep are complex and intelligent creatures

If you consider yourself above average on your trivia knowledge, chances are you already know that sheep are intelligent animals. For example, one study found that sheep can learn how to navigate out of a complex maze1Constable, H 2017, ‘Sheep are not stupid, and they are not helpless either’, BBC Earth, 19 April, accessed 16 September 2020, http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170418-sheep-are-not-stupid-and-they-are-not-helpless-either., and it was seeing their fellow sheep at the finish line that helped them reach their exit – #squadgoals! 

Image by Dinh Khoi Nguyen from Pixabay

So sheep may be cute and clever, but did you know that they also possess strong face recognition abilities? In one study, sheep were trained to expertly distinguish four famous faces from photographs, that of former US President Barack Obama, actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Emma Watson, and BBC newsreader Fiona Bruce. In fact, sheep can remember up to 50 individual faces for more than two years 2Constable, H 2017, ‘Sheep are not stupid, and they are not helpless either’, BBC Earth, 19 April, accessed 16 September 2020, http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170418-sheep-are-not-stupid-and-they-are-not-helpless-either.!

2. Sheep are curious and playful 

There’s no doubt that this pandemic-struck year has been tough for the entire world. But would you have expected that while the people were away, that sheep would come out to play?

During the lockdown period, sheep delighted a Welsh town when they decided to go exploring the local playground, much to the surprise of shoppers next door3Murray, J 2020, ’True-life portraits, imaginary nuptials and fantasising sheep’, The Guardian, 23 April, accessed 8 October 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2020/apr/22/true-life-portraits-imaginary-nuptials-and-fantasising-sheep . And in the Southeast county of Monmouthshire, a group of lambs were spotted spinning on a roundabout at a children’s playground4Murray, J 2020, ’True-life portraits, imaginary nuptials and fantasising sheep’, The Guardian, 23 April, accessed 8 October 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2020/apr/22/true-life-portraits-imaginary-nuptials-and-fantasising-sheephttps://www.rnz.co.nz/news/rural/283160/ewe-won’t-believe-how-much-his-wool-weighed.. Sheep have an estimated field of vision of up to 320 degrees thanks to sheep’s large rectangular pupils (humans average just 155 degrees)5Amelinckx, A 2017, 6 fun facts about sheep you might not know, Modern Farmer Media, accessed 6 October 2020, https://modernfarmer.com/2017/12/6-facts-sheep-might-not-know/.. Spinning on the roundabout must’ve been one trippy sensation to remember for these fun-loving creatures!  

3. Sheep make dependable and empathetic friends 

Sheep don’t just form friendships; they also have besties6Haines, L 2005, ’Sheep have best friends: official‘, The Register, 16 March, accessed 16 September 2020, https://www.theregister.com/2005/03/16/sheep_have_friends/.! Sheep make excellent BFFs by forming deep and lasting bonds and sticking up for their weaker friends during fights7Constable, H 2017, ‘Sheep are not stupid, and they are not helpless either’, BBC Earth, 19 April, accessed 16 September 2020, http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170418-sheep-are-not-stupid-and-they-are-not-helpless-either.. Sheep even grieve at the loss of their friends when they go missing8Constable, H 2017, ‘Sheep are not stupid, and they are not helpless either’, BBC Earth, 19 April, accessed 16 September 2020, http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170418-sheep-are-not-stupid-and-they-are-not-helpless-either..  

This is because sheep experience a whole range of emotions, including fear, despair, anger, boredom and happiness, which is what drives their actions and makes them so loyal. In fact, sheep support each other so well that they can even detect anxiety in another sheep just by looking at their face9Kois, K 2020, 11 reasons why sheep hate the wool industry (and why you should, too), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, accessed 6 October 2020, https://www.peta.org/blog/sheep-facts-wool-animalkind/.. Sheep can even distinguish our different facial expressions, and prefer our smile to our frown10Constable, H 2017, ‘Sheep are not stupid, and they are not helpless either’, BBC Earth, 19 April, accessed 16 September 2020, http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170418-sheep-are-not-stupid-and-they-are-not-helpless-either.

Girl holding a lamb

4. Humans have bred sheep to continually grow wool

Unlike domestic sheep, wild sheep types naturally shed most of their wool each year, a vital trait for their survival11Orwig, J 2015, ‘Enormous, cloud-like sheep are an evolutionary nightmare, Business Insider Australia, accessed 6 October 2020, “https://www.businessinsider.com.au/why-sheep-cant-stop-growing-their-fur-2015-9?r=US&IR=T.. However the wool of domesticated breeds like the Merino will just keep growing if left unattended12Orwig, J 2015, ‘Enormous, cloud-like sheep are an evolutionary nightmare, Business Insider Australia, accessed 6 October 2020, “https://www.businessinsider.com.au/why-sheep-cant-stop-growing-their-fur-2015-9?r=US&IR=T.

For example, in 2015 a sheep named “Chris” was found outside of Canberra with 40 kilograms of fleece on him13’Ewe won‘t believe how much his wool weighed‘, Radio New Zealand, 3 September 2015, accessed 8 October 2020, https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/rural/283160/ewe-won’t-believe-how-much-his-wool-weighed..

National Museum of Australia Director talks of the importance of keeping animal welfare in the national memory. Video courtesy of: National Museum of Australia

Struggling to walk under the weight of his own wool, which was almost equal to his own body weight of 44 kilograms, it took 42 minutes to give Chris the clip of a lifetime – a task which usually takes under three minutes14’Ewe won‘t believe how much his wool weighed‘, Radio New Zealand, 3 September 2015, accessed 8 October 2020, https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/rural/283160/ewe-won’t-believe-how-much-his-wool-weighed.. Marvels aside though, overgrown wool can be incredibly dangerous for sheep – heat management for example can be a fatal issue15Nosowitz, D 2015, World-champion shearer removes absurd 88-pound fleece from sheep, Modern Farmer Media, accessed 7 October 2020, https://modernfarmer.com/2015/09/chris-australian-sheep/..  

5. Lastly, most Australian ‘wool’ sheep suffer mulesing (not cool), a practice over 180 fashion brands now oppose (cool)

But what is mulesing? It involves restraining lambs at 6-12 weeks of age on their backs. Then shears, similar to garden shears are used to cut away skin from their hindquarters and around their tail. It causes acute pain for up to three days, leaving a wound that take weeks to heal. 

Mulesing aims to prevent a condition called flystrike, but…good news! There are pain-free solutions available to mitigate this issue. And the best of these is to simply use good genetics (you can read more on the solutions here). 

So what can you do to protect Australia’s loveable sheep? Join 150,000+ supporters in signing our petition to show brands you won’t stand for the use of mulesed wool in fashion. Mulesing is no longer a necessary evil and has to go!

It’s clear sheep are highly intelligent and emotional sentient beings. They deserve to be seen and valued for much more than just their wool. Together, let’s #EndMulesing!!