Friday, 5 September 2014

The Selfish Herd Theory

We take so many things for granted, don't we?  Mother knows best, swallows fly south before winter sets in, the cuckoo comes to our shores in early spring, the fox is a sly animal, red sky at night shepherds delight.  That kind of stuff, based on decades of observation which is passed down to us, we believe it or most of it and feel a certain sense of security.

I was a little taken aback by a new study which says there are two simple rules to explain sheepdog behaviour. Now, I have always understood that a sheepdog rounds up the sheep for his master because that's his job, and the sheep are duly grateful to him because if the wolf knocks at the door of the fold, the dog will protect them.  But maybe I got that idea from one of the many fairy tales I was told as a child, a sort of mixture of Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs. 
Be that as it may, research published in Journal of the Royal Society Interface and remarked upon by several learned publications see link to Science Daily for example, tells us that they have found the key to the sheepdogs' behaviour.  I, for one, am totally disillusioned and not for the first time in my life.  It seems to me that you just can't believe anything any more or if you do, some one (usually a scientist) will come along and explain the whys and wherefores of it and ruin the magic.  But I digress. 
Here is the substance of the study:
GPS devices were strapped to sheep in order to track their movements and a GPS device was also strapped to the dog (I bet that was a hard morning's work but no reports of anyone falling asleep as they counted how many sheep they'd GPS'd).  Researchers claim that this procedure helps to explain why one shepherd and a single dog can herd an unruly flock of more than 100 sheep.  It doesn't say they put a GPS device on the shepherd but maybe they simply forgot or he got lucky, who knows? 
To continue: The first rule (remember there are two rules according to the scientists) is the sheepdog learns how to make sheep come together in a flock.  The second rule:  whenever the sheep are in a tightly knit group the dog pushes them forwards.
Does that all make sense to you?  I mean, supposing the sheep are near a cliff and the dog "keeps pushing them forward"? 

The scientists remarked that one thing sheep are good at is responding to a threat by working with their neighbours.  (NATO please take note).  This behaviour is known as the selfish herd theory:  put something between the threat and you.
I, for one, will never be able to watch the English sheepdog trials with the same amount of pleasure I have in the past.  And all because a couple of scientists couldn't leave it alone and let me believe that sheepdogs are highly intelligent and it is their nature to look after sheep - you don't see a poodle rounding up a herd of sheep, now do you?  (No, I have nothing against poodles, I love all animals.)
So there it is.  Another illusion gone belly up. 

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