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Wednesday, 7 November, 2001, 21:46 GMT
The 'intelligent' side of sheep
Think of an intelligent animal, and a sheep may not be the first to spring to mind.

But it seems that our woolly friends are not as woolly-brained as we might think.

In fact, scientists have shown that sheep not only have remarkable memories, but that they also experience emotions when they see a familiar face.

It is a very sophisticated memory system. They are showing similar abilities in many ways to humans

Keith Kendrick

Researchers at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, have shown that the animals have a remarkable memory system and are extremely good at recognising faces -- which they suspect is a sure sign of intelligence.

Behavioural scientist Keith Kendrick and his colleagues trained 20 sheep to recognise and distinguish 25 pairs of sheep faces.

They used electrodes to measure their brain activity to show they could remember 50 faces for up to two years.

"If they can do that with faces, the implication is that they have to have reasonable intelligence, otherwise what is the point of having a system for remembering faces and not remembering anything else," said Mr Kendrick.

So hours of seemingly mindless grazing may not be so mindless after all.

Kendrick suspects sheep got their dim-witted reputation because they live in large groups and do not appear to have much individuality and they are scared of just about everything.

Farmer Tudor Rees
Sheep pine for missing friends says farmer Tudor Rees

"Any animal, including humans, once they are scared, they don't tend to show signs of intelligent behaviour," he explained.

In the research published in the science journal Nature, the scientists showed that sheep, like humans, have a specialist system in the brain which allows them to distinguish between many different faces which look extremely similar.

"The most important finding is that they are able, both from a behavioural point of view and from looking at the way the brain is organised, to remember a large number of faces of individuals for a very long time," said Mr Kendrick.

"It is a very sophisticated memory system. They are showing similar abilities in many ways to humans."

The researchers findings have come as no surprise to Welsh farmer Tudor Rees.

"When you thin that when sheep wander off sometimes they go back to where they came from - the flock they came from, " he said.

The BBC's Tom Heap
"Sheep can ever remember faces they saw two years before"
See also:

22 Oct 01 | Sci/Tech
Why sheep brains are a puzzle
03 Nov 01 | England
Sheep taught to stay put
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