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Sheep may not be as dumb as I thought

Years ago, one particular drive we took along the Oregon Coast left the impression that sheep were pretty unintelligent creatures. One report from the University of Illinois claims that a sheep’s IQ is just below that of a pig, which as I’ve mentioned before, is really too smart to be eaten without qualms.

Sheep are more on equal ground with cattle in the area of problem-solving. So there you go. I mean, these coastal sheep roamed free, oblivious to traffic whizzing by at 60 mph, as they munched grass along the shoulder of Highway 101. Sheep are notoriously fearful and panicky animals because they’re prey, and they know it. Surely they had a shepherd somewhere keeping an eye out, but I couldn’t help wondering at their seeming peace while so near danger and calamity.

The scene of these confident sheep has stayed with me through the years. Maybe that’s why I was intrigued by a class offered recently through the Oregon State University Research and Extension Center on Hanley Road.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a PowerPoint presentation by Kelly Mulville of Paicines Ranch in California. Kelly covered everything we needed to know about environmentally friendly land management with regard to the many benefits of natural livestock grazing. He focused on vineyards, helping promote the growing trend toward biodynamic wineries.

Happy sheep grazing between the vines eliminates the need for harsh chemicals and fertilizers as sheep provide their own, while chewing down whatever cover crop you decide, which can be diverse and beneficial for both the soil and the sheep. I’m not going to get overly technical here because I’m neither a farmer nor an ag specialist. But I am a consumer, and what Kelly had to say about protecting and nurturing our topsoil rather than abusing it year after year made much sense. For his well written blog on the subject, see www.grazingvineyards@blogspot.com.

So, back to sheep. I enjoyed the pictures of satisfied sheep smiling for the camera among the vines. How dumb can sheep be if they can manage a gig like that? I thought how much more pleasant it would be having livestock there rather than spraying for weeds or hand suckering each vine.

After the initial growth period, the herd is intentionally moved from one section to another, then the process is repeated. They’re well fed, and rather than being a used-up commodity, they multiply. They do an excellent and complete job of mowing, according to before and after shots.

But don’t they eat the grapes? Of course, they would, but sheep aren’t as dumb as first surmised. They have learned to respect the high voltage wire strung along the vines. According to Kelly, one surprise is all it takes. After such a rude awakening, they keep to what’s beneath their hooves. I wondered whether each individual must suffer the jolt or if seeing their buddy take a hit would suffice. It doesn’t work for 12-year-old boys.

One photo showed a contented sheep rubbing his head against a grapevine trunk. Kelly said it’s cool to see the wool-draped trunks and watch how the white tufts reappear in birds’ nests later. Nature working as originally designed is a beautiful thing.

Having sheep in the vineyard helps exemplify an Arcadian movement toward simpler, healthier farm management practices. It’s practical as well. Kelly came loaded with facts and figures about increased yields and savings per acre. Besides that, the sheep love it. I learned that sheep do recognize their master’s face and voice, and may even respond to their name.

One anecdotal story I found from North Yorkshire said their sheep had learned to cross a cattle guard by rolling on their backs. There were no videos. Oh, those Brits.

Peggy Dover is a freelance writer and author of Trips & Tangents: 101 Favorite Southern Oregon Journal Columns. Reach her at pcdover@hotmail.com.