Sheep smarter than we think

Armidale sheep put to the test in a complex maze

Sheep are smarter than we think. They can learn and remember according to CSIRO researchers from Armidale in NSW. The team is working to identify and breed smarter sheep as part of their work to improve animal welfare and production.

Caroline Lee, a member of the animal welfare team at the F D McMaster Laboratory, has developed a complex maze test to measure intelligence and learning in sheep, similar to those used for rats and mice.

“Using the maze, we have already shown that sheep have excellent spatial memory and are able learn and improve their performance. And they can retain this information for a six-week period,” Dr Lee said.

“The aim of our work is to identify intelligent sheep, by accurately measuring how they perform in the maze. This will improve animal welfare by enabling us to select animals that are better suited to our changing farming systems.

“With the move towards more automated farming, being able to select smarter sheep will make them easier to look after and monitor on the farm. For instance, the latest methods for weighing sheep involve them walking independently across a weighbridge.”

“Smart sheep can do this readily. Such technology makes for happier sheep, and increased productivity,” she said.

The maze uses the strong flocking instinct of sheep to motivate them to find their way through. The time it initially takes an animal to rejoin its flock indicates smartness, while subsequent improvement in times over consecutive days of testing measures learning and memory.

Caroline is one of 13 Fresh Scientists presenting their research to the public for the first time thanks to Fresh Science, a national program hosted by the State Library of Victoria. One of the Fresh Scientists will win a trip to the UK courtesy of the British Council to present his or her work to the Royal Institution.

The research is part of a collaborative project between CSIRO, Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) France and University of Western Australia and is funded by the French-Australian Science and Technology Program.

Sheep waiting to enter the maze, with Caroline

A sheep entering the maze

Caroline observing a sheep in the maze,
making its way to its flockmates

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