With over ten thousand years of sheep farming behind us, it’s no surprise that our ovine friends have been the subject of more than a few falsehoods over the years. This article aims to correct a few of those mistruths and replace them with some fascinating facts that even the most seasoned sheep farmer may not have heard of.
SHEEP MYTH: COUNTING SHEEP IS THE BEST WAY TO GET TO SLEEP
Trouble sleeping? The perceived wisdom is that your best bet is to begin counting sheep for an easy transition into sleep, but that’s not exactly true. Oxford University researchers conducted a study comparing two groups of insomniacs who were instructed to use different techniques to get to sleep. They found that the group who were instructed to count sheep fell asleep on average 20 minutes later than those who were told to imagine a ‘peaceful scene’ such as tranquil shores or a sunny meadow. The researchers suggested that counting sheep was just too boring for subjects to carry on doing for a long time.
SHEEP FACT: THERE ARE MORE SHEEP THAN PEOPLE IN WALES
A jibe often directed at Welsh people is that their country is home to more sheep than people, but is that really true? Last year the sheep population of Wales hit the 10 million mark, while the human population is far below, at around 3 million. So this is indeed, true. This however is nothing compared to the situation in New Zealand, where Kiwis find themselves outnumbered by sheep 6 to 1. It gets even crazier when you look at individual provinces, such as Southland, where the ratio rises to an incredible 42 to 1!
SHEEP FACT: A SHEEP WAS THE WORLD’S FIRST CLONED MAMMAL
Dolly the sheep made history in February 1997 when she became the first ever cloned mammal to be born. She lived a relatively normal life and gave birth to six lambs; however she died prematurely at the age of six years old. This reignited controversy regarding the ethics of cloning that remains unresolved to this day. Why the name Dolly? Well, Dolly was cloned from a mammary cell and, according to lead scientist Dr Ian Wilmut they “couldn’t think of a more impressive pair than Dolly Parton’s.”
SHEEP FACT: SHEEP ONCE LIVED AT THE WHITE HOUSE
You’d be pretty surprised to see a flock of sheep grazing outside the White House these days, but during WWI that’s exactly what happened. As an act of support for the war effort, President Woodrow Wilson and his wife kept a flock of 42 sheep on the White House lawn. The sheep were brought in to save on housekeeping costs by looking after the grass, and after shearing the auction of their wool managed to raise $52,832 for the Red Cross.
SHEEP MYTH: SHEEP ARE STUPID
It’s true that sheep have often been unfairly labelled as stupid animals, with some going as far as to say they’re not good for much else other than eating and producing wool. As any good sheep farmer will know however, they’re far smarter than most people give them credit for. Cambridge University researchers conducted research which identified that sheep have brainpower equal to rodents and monkeys. They have relatively advanced learning capabilities, can map out their surroundings mentally and may even be able to forward-plan. Additionally, research has found that sheep can remember 50 different sheep faces for up to 2 years and even recognise a photo of their shepherd. Sheep are able to respond readily to food calls, problem solve, learn their names and even be clicker trained. Not so dumb after all.
SHEEP FACT: THERE ARE OVER 1,000 DIFFERENT BREEDS OF SHEEP
Around the world there are thought to be over 1,000 different breeds of sheep. These various breeds can have some pretty distinctive differences . Take the Badger Face Welsh Mountain sheep for instance, a sheep with a black and white face that looks exactly like – you guessed it – a badger. Then there’s the North Ronaldsay, a breed that lives on the beach and has a preference for eating seaweed. The Wensleydale breed on the other hand, features long curly strands of hair that resemble dreadlocks.