I’ve got your baa-ck! Sheep bond over stressful experiences such as being sheared or rounded up by dogs, study says
Humans often form strong bonds after going through tough times together.
Now a study has shown a similar experience among sheep who are sheared, rounded up by a dog or driven in a trailer.
Researchers found the animals prefer the company of other sheep who went through the stressful experience with them.
They tested 70 ewes in groups of ten, with half undergoing stressful experiences and the others spared them.
When the stressed sheep were placed in a paddock afterwards, they stood 14 inches closer to each other on average than to the non-stressed animals.
A study has found that sheep prefer the company of other sheep when they go through the stressful experience of either being sheared, rounded up by a dog or driven in a trailer
Senior study author Dr Dana Campbell said: ‘Sheep appear to bond over stressful experiences – and may help to reduce each others’ stress.’
The animal behaviour scientist, based at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia, added: ‘It is just more evidence that sheep are not stupid – they are actually pretty clever.’
Researchers tested the animals in groups of ten, with five of each group undergoing stressful farmyard activities.
These included being herded by a sheepdog for two five-minute sessions, and being twice tipped and held still by a human for two minutes, as happens before shearing.
There were also two minutes of simulated shearing around their tail and rear legs, and two 15-minute sessions of being driven in a trailer.
When the five sheep were placed in a paddock afterwards, they stuck closer to each other than to the five sheep who were not in the stressful situation with them.
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Sheep in shared stressful situations stood more than a foot (36cm) closer to each other on average, compared to their distance from the other sheep.
Dr Campbell said: ‘Standing closer to each other indicates that sheep are friends or companions.
‘It is similar to when humans who go through a traumatic experience together are more likely to become friends or stay in close contact, because it is only that other person that understands what they went through.’
Sheep are known to recognise each others’ faces, as well as the smell of other sheep, so can identify those they want to be close to.
Over four days, where they were tracked over daytime hours, sheep who had shared stressful situations stood closer together.
Experts believe animal friendships may release the ‘cuddle hormone’ oxytocin in sheep, which helps to relieve stress.
Previously stressed sheep also stood up to almost two feet (60cm) closer to sheep they already knew from their flock, indicating they may have been seeking comfort from familiar animals.
Dr Sean Wensley, former president of the British Veterinary Association, who recently published a book called Through A Vet’s Eyes, said: ‘This is yet more evidence that sheep are not mindless, they are intelligent, and more like people than we might have realised.
‘It follows evidence that they can remember the faces of dozens of other sheep and several humans they know, and remember those faces for years.
‘That should make us think about reducing the stress and pain caused to some farmed sheep, by making sure they have quick treatment for lameness and do not have their tails routinely docked unnecessarily.’