Follow the Leader
The sheep, or Ovis aries, exhibit a strong following instinct from birth. This instinct exists in all sheep breeds but is the strongest in the fine wool breeds (Sheep 101, 2009). Since young, they are conditioned to follow the older members of the flock. So if there is a ram in the flock, he usually leads. However, in some cases, the leader usually is the one who walks away first.
When one sheep decides to go somewhere, the rest of the flock follows, even if the leader leads them to jump off a cliff. In fact, one famous news article (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4665511.stm) about this flocking behaviour is about how 1,500 sheep followed each other over a cliff in Turkey.
Shepherds and farmers exploit this flocking behavior to move large numbers of sheep from place to place. In fact, this flocking behavior may be the reason why the sheep is one of the first domesticated livestock species in history. However, this flocking behaviour is only exhibited when they are four or more sheep (Neary, 2001).
As sheep have limited means of defense from predators, their main defense mechanism is to instinctively flock together and flee from danger. Research has also shown that instead of fleeing randomly when faced with danger, sheep head straight for the center of the flock (Jones, 2012). According to the World Animal Foundation, the strongest sheep will fight their way to the center which offers them greater protection.
“The idea is that being part of a tight-knit group..decreases the chance that you are the one the predator goes for when it attacks,” explains Dr Andrew King from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), lead author of the study, published in Current Biology (Jones, 2012).
Jones, T. (2012). Sheep Backpacks Reveal Flocking Strategy. Retrieved from http://phys.org/news/2012-07-sheep-backpacks-reveal-flocking-strategy.html.
Neary, M. (2001). Sheep Sense. Retrieved from http://www.working-border-collie.com/article3.html.
Sheep 101. (2009). Flocking. Retrieved from http://www.sheep101.info/flocking.html.
World Animal Foundation. (Unknown). Sheep/Lamb Fact Sheet. Retrieved from http://www.worldanimalfoundation.net/f/Sheep-Lamb.pdf.