I didn’t always love sheep. When I was growing up, my mother kept a small flock in a field next to our house, and our sheep did not exactly stand out as intelligent, or even interesting.
When the sheep shearer arrived, all he had to do was sit them down on their hindquarters and the sheep went so limp, they might as well have been shot dead. They were comical looking besides, like upturned wooly sofas. Plus, none of our sheep ever went rogue. Sheep try not to stand out as individuals.
As a rebellious teen, therefore, I related more to our horses, whose individual personalities were so definite that each animal had its own greeting for me when I entered the barn, and to our stubborn goats, who were smart enough to open gates if you didn’t tie them shut.
However, when I finally had the chance to travel to England in my early thirties and visit my brother, who lives outside of London, I fell in love with the sight of sheep grazing the sparkling emerald fields as we walked the footpaths and drove the narrow lanes. I loved the Zen way the ewes had of moving together through the fields, like clouds on skinny legs. And the antics of the lambs had me pulling out my camera so often, my brother threatened to dump me out of the car and leave me in one of those fields. (The photos of sheep accompanying this post are his, by the way.)
Since then, I have learned that sheep are smart animals, but in their own way. They move together in flocks because their only defense is to present a united front to predators. And, when it comes to food, they are exceedingly clever: for instance, one flock in England was observed rolling across hoof-proof cattle grids to raid the gardens of a neighboring village. And sheep have been known to eat plants with medicinal properties to make themselves feel better when they’re ill.
In one journal article published in Nature, researchers reported that sheep recognize the faces of as many as 50 animals in their own flocks, and can remember them for up to two years if those sheep are moved. Sheep also have excellent spatial abilities and memories, too. They navigate mazes every bit as well as rats, whose intelligence is often applauded.
So, sheep, I apologize for having slighted you, especially since I have recently taken up knitting. Now one of my favorite pastimes is visiting sheep farms, where I can see the animals who give me the wool I love to transform into scarves and sweaters.
Lately, I have started to fantasize about raising sheep of my own. For this reason, one of the main characters in my new novel, HAVEN LAKE, has her own thriving flock of Icelandic sheep. I could only create her with the help of real-life shepherdess and artist Wendy Ketchum of Schoolhouse Farm in Tamworth, New Hampshire, who was so generous in sharing her experiences with me.
The world is a better place for having sheep in it. If I can’t have any in my back yard, I can at least have fun raising them on the page.