Sheep are Smart

Sheep are smart – don’t let anyone pull the wool over your eyes. Their survival drive ensures they can learn almost anything that matters to them.

People say disparagingly that someone “follows like sheep”. At times that is appropriate. Usually a wise old ewe takes the lead when we move the flock. She follows those who have earned her trust – the shepherd and often the guardian dog too. An individual sheep has no defense against predators except being one of a group, lacking speed, teeth or claws. “Safety in numbers” is wise for the flock.

But they make choices. Ewes will separate to lamb on pasture here at Topsy Farms, finding a sheltered spot, to birth their babes and to bond.

“Black Sheep” is a term used to refer to a problem or difficult person. Why does our society feel unable to accommodate and celebrate differences? We don’t presently have black sheep in our flock, as the shorn fleece must be kept carefully separate when processing. At the moment, there is a high demand for black (or brown or coloured) fleeces in North America – they are too scarce. We could use more Black Sheep in all senses of the phrase.

Recent studies in Britain make interesting reading:

The bible parables of the 99 and 1 have true meaning. A good shepherd knows individuals within his flock. Our shepherd Christopher, kept an eye on each of the nearly 1400 lambs born this spring, and ‘rescued’ those needing extra help.

At the farm, we work with those lambs that need to be bottle fed because of birth trauma, or being the smallest of multiple births of 3 or 4. Their needs and abilities are very individual.

Each lamb must go through a significant learning curve in order to survive. Luckily, sheep are smart.

Their instinct says go under a warm body seeking a fleshy nipple. Instead they must learn to accept and seek a hard black rubber nipple. Their senses of touch and hearing are acute at birth but their eyes are not yet strong. They have to learn to accept and welcome people, to stand and learn to suck and to eat our reconstituted formula that doesn’t taste like mama’s milk. They need to cuddle other lambs for body warmth, lacking mama. All this must happen within about 24 hours from birth. Sheep are smart, and the lambs almost all survive.

Their personalities and quirks develop early as they develop. All sheep are NOT alike, including in their capacity to learn more than the necessary basics.

They communicate very clearly to those who learn to listen. They have a variety of oral sounds. We enjoy hearing the nickering soft mama nurturing murmurs to new lambs. As with people, the subtleties of the sounds vary with individuals, expressing feelings of constipation, boredom, eagerness, curiosity, or uneasiness.

Body language is clear too. New lambs, hungry and cold are desperately droopy, often past shivering or sucking or sometimes even swallowing. A few drops of warm ewe’s milk massaged down a throat will elicit a swallow and soft sound. A hungry lamb, just brought from a mama who can’t cope, will chew on a rubber nipple or sit with it in his mouth, passively resisting – wrong feel, wrong taste. But squeezing a few drops of warmth will often ‘prime the pump’ and hunger takes over and we hear the “I’m going to survive” drive of eager sucking. They even have to learn to coordinate their tongue action. Sheep are smart – it seldom takes long.

Older fosters readily learn to wear a harness and will walk on a leash with a visitor. It is an adaptation of the skill of following mama in the fields.

Book a time to visit us by sending an email to or calling 613 389-3444/888 287-3157. When you come to visit the Wool Shed, that carries all our wool and sheepskin products and more, this should make the trip even more interesting.

Our sheep are well loved – not just for their brains.