Sonntag, 11. August 2019

Sheep can heal hearts - social competence in small ruminants

I heard the other day that the Navajo say that sheep heal hearts.
Sheep are social animals. That's not news. What many people don't know is that their leadership skills surpass those of primates (including humans).
One of my favourite topics: if you want to be an exceptionally good leader, don't lead like a lion. Lead like a sheep!
More about that and some research and anecdotes behind that later. And probably as a book.
Just now I... want to contemplate a thought I had. In English because I hope for lots of feedback and stories that people might be willing to share.

Let me start with a little background for readers who are not 'half sheep'...
Sheep are social. Sheep are flock animals. Which means they don't only need 'a mate'. They need a flock. Some people say three sheep are minimum, some say 15. I say: it depends. Every sheep needs to see other sheep. At all times. Or at least know that one is over there. Some sheep and some breeds of sheep (like Shetland sheep) are brave and clever and content. Others are flighty and easily scared (and often extremely clever too - to escape dangers!)
So an average sheep, as a flock animal, grazes with a little distance to others. They have good peripheral vision but a predator stalking them could still creep up. Every sheep looks out for them while grazing. To feel calm and safe a sheep wants to see other sheep being calm. Knowing that they are watching out too. Put simply: the more calm sheep (who are all constantly watching out for dangers) are in one individual's field of vision, the safer the world is.
If one sheep in a flock is suddenly alert but lots of others are still calm, one individual who sees the alert sheep will not panic. But if a critical mass of others stop grazing and look up, it will look up too. (In case the first one sees danger that nobody else sees, she will give a warning whistle!)

OK. So that's sheep behaviour in a nutshell to set off what I was wondering about the other day.

To go and sit with my sheep is soothing. They ground me with routines I do and they go with the seasons. That connects me. They are good for heart and head. Lambs having fun are great to watch. Sheep are good for calming the mind. Most animals are. A dog will come and try to make you smile. Dogs often seem to apoplogise when we seem sad or angry. Sheep don't do that.

On a normal day when I sit with my sheep they do what they do. Graze or chew cud or bounce over the pasture. But when I am really, really sad and the world gets too much they... come and lie at my side. They lie down close by and chew cud and are as relaxed as only sheep can be. Not just one. Enough to be a critical mass.
And the place I sit down is not one they normaly lie.

Sheep are extremely good at reading other species' thoughts. Neighbours cat out walking? Fine. Neighbour's cat in hunting mode? Whistle. A dog on a walk? Fine! Sheepdog? Stand to attention! Same with me when I have a knife in my pocket to trim feet. I can't pretend innocence enough to fool a sheep! Lying to a human is comparatively easy, lying to a sheep impossible. Sheep can be lead with heartfelt confidence but not with insecurity in a pretend shell. Watch a real shepherd with a huge flock!

So this is what I thought the other day: it is not a coincidence! Sheep are not only soothing because they give structure to a day and force us out from under the blanket where we would love to hide. It is not only soothing because we watch gentle creatures being content and chew cud. I am convinced they do this on purpose. When I am sad and feel lost they make it so that I see as many of them as possible being content and calm. Not trying to cheer me up. Just saying - very clearly -  that all is well for now!

Sheep can heal hearts

Maybe there's a lesson here for us.

Any anecdotes or moments you are willing to share: please do so! Either as a comment here or drop me an email.