Sunday, April 26, 2009

Icelandic Sheep

I have been thinking about Icelandic sheep.

When I was in Iceland the second time, I met a distinguished evolutionary biologist. I said, "People always tell me sheep are stupid. Are Icelandic sheep stupid?"

He replied, "Sheep are not stupid. People always say denigrating things about animals they exploit."

In point of fact, there are Icelandic stories about how smart sheep can be, especially about the weather.

Traditionally the Icelanders have sent their flocks into the mountains to graze in the spring and gathered them in the fall. This means the sheep are on their own from April or May till September.

This is possible because the largest land predator in Iceland (aside from the very occasional polar bear that floats in on ice) is the arctic fox. I don't think foxes are big enough to be a danger to sheep. Maybe a newborn, but that's why the ewe is standing there looking fierce.

Shepherds and sheep herding dogs are not necessary to protect the sheep from predators. But there have to be other dangers: bad weather and dangerous terrain. The sheep have to deal with these on their own. Presumably -- over the past thousand years -- the less intelligent sheep have made bad decisions and removed their genes from the gene pool. The end result is smart and self-reliant Icelandic sheep.

So because sheep in Iceland had no predators, they became cannier and learned better survival skills.

If I got any of this wrong, Helgi can tell me.


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