They know exactly what they need to know. They manage just fine thank you, problem solving their way out of gaps in our fencing and then problem solving their way back in again. They manage to stay safe and fed. And, most interestingly, they have their own not-always-so-peaceable little community, replete with squabbles and longstanding friendships.
For example, matriarch Copper will always let her daughter, Daisy, squeeze in beside her at the grain bucket, though she’d batter any other ewe who dared think about it. And Daisy is three years old. If Copper was as stupid as the hype, she’d barely recognize her grown and long ago weaned offspring and she certainly wouldn’t favor her. Funny, but when the little ewe lamb arrived with Copper way back when, our oldest, Micah, named her “Princess Daisy”. And Daisy, the grown ewe, is certainly a bit of a princess, allied to her powerful mama, she just trip-traps along as heedless (and privileged) as the littlest billy goat gruff.
Other sheep have similar alliances. Although they are unrelated, Acorn and Penny have what could be termed a long-standing “friendship”. It is rare to find one of them without the other. Acorn, friendly and forward, eases the watchful Penny from one place to another. And Penny, in return, has Acorn’s back.
Now, sheep are alien in many respects. Simple things can freak them out: I once wore a different hat down to the barn and they scattered at the sight of it. And they will bolt through a tiny opening rather than risk being left alone (flockless?) They are highly visual; amazingly, they barely recognize each other after in the minutes after shearing. And often, when it comes to treating, clipping, vaccinating, etc., they would prefer to do things the hard way.
But stupid? Not really. There’s a lot more going on in those wooly little heads than you’d expect.
At any rate, I consider it a privilege to get to know another species so intimately. One of the wonderful surprises of farming/shepherding is sharing time with so different a form of life, connecting in a rare way with a (now) rare creature. When I lived in the suburbs, I had no idea that the lives of a sheep could contain such small but interesting dramas. The same could be said for the chickens, who also have their own kind of “intelligence”, their own inner worlds. (Maybe these worlds are limited to scratch and lay, peck and pecking order, but it they are much more full than you’d expect.)
And yes, I know I risk being anthropomorphic when I speak of sheep “friendships” or the “inner worlds” of chickens, but life is a lot more mysterious than we give it credit for. Why not?