03 - Eating Grass makes you stupid

In which I discuss whether sheep are daft because they eat grass and argue that there is evidence that says not all sheep are as stupid as they are painted.

There is only limited sense to the insult ‘birdbrain’. Have you fed ducks or swans on the river? Met geese? Tried to feed a robin? Some of these class as stupid birds and some do not. A robin or a tit will exhibit learning skills in the effort to gain food from you, especially in the winter. A magpie or jay, horrid birds, shows skills that must be learned in stealing eggs from nests. Crows are not stupid.

Geese, on the other hand, are unbelievably thick. Their heads are much bigger than that of a robin, possibly by a linear factor of five, which suggests two magnitudes1 more of brain space if they’re built to a common design. Yet a goose cannot find its way home, partly because it sees so badly. Geese run into doors, into fences and even into each other. Searching for an explanation for this I thought about the diet of the robin, the duck and the goose. My ducks ate anything you offered them, from Shreddies2 to snails, from bread to barnacles and even paté (yes, even that flavour). They ate their own eggshell from necessity and would eat snail shell and any sand so as to have shell material in their crop. A robin is a little more discriminatory but still eats a wide range of foods. A goose on the other hand, eats grass. And very little else. Rare is the goose that can be persuaded into eating much other than the common greenstuff, and of the greenery available, grass is the principal staple. An obvious conclusion perhaps?

Consider the sheep and the goats.

Goats will eat absolutely anything, given any chance at all. What they like, apparently, is variety. There is nowhere they will not go for a new sample of food; the other side of every fence (can you imagine the goat equivalent to the grass is always greener…?), the garage roof, all over the kitchen garden and in the house if you leave a door open. Goats rapidly stop being friendly or pets until you tie them firmly to a stake. At which point you discover they are no more waterproof than yourself, so you cannot really leave them staked outside in a downpour3. Thus the goat exhibits what passes for curiosity, inventiveness and anthropomorphically we accept this as showing intelligence. If you don’t like that statement, you’ll agree that they don’t pass themselves off as stupid. You show a goat how to open a gate; it will demonstrate learning rather quickly.

Sheep on the other hand, generally eat grass. Enough already? Sheep in Cornwall and Wales have reputations for immorality, but that is more likely their partners at fault. Even if true, it would only demonstrate stupidity. Sheep have significantly bigger heads than geese. Their brains are of a significant size. Goats have a similar shape and general build, yet goats are ‘clever’ and sheep are ‘thick’. So where is the difference? I say look at the diet. Let them eat grass, for they shall be the sheep of the field, to mix quotations.


When I kept sheep, I experimented. No, not like that, you dirty-minded individual, I mean I tried feeding sheep different foods. One of our wethers4 grew up with goats and had the habits of travel and feeding variety. Not for him the green stuff if variety was on offer. Cardboard? Lovely stuff. Asparagus? Horseradish? Now you’re talking. Thistles? Well, if that’s what you’re offering….. And yes, he loved lamb sandwiches. Giving him chewing gum was unfair, but fruit pastilles seemed worth the work on his part. Sheep only have teeth in one half of the jaw and grind their food against some pretty hard gums, so mastic mastication is hilarious to watch, but probably unjust to repeat. Was this sheep stupid? I say not. He learned, where the grass-eaters did not, to identify food with people and could distinguish people, voices and calls almost to the same level as a dog. He knew which foods were worthwhile, and some weeding in the adjacent kitchen garden would cause him to run to join in, even when he was well past running age. All three of our ex-males and two of the females learned similar skills but the other sheep, including those we sent to market, refused to eat other than grass. So I never discovered if the meat changed its character, but I did test any theory that not-grass makes you not-stupid.


And so to the cow. Big head, big brain. Nice sense of curiosity, can be friendly and communicative, clearly learns where necessary. Oops, and a diet of only grass. If my thesis is right, then it is not grass that makes one stupid, it is having a variety of diet that makes one less stupid. So imagine what would happen if you fed a cow as more of an omnivore? Ok, let’s be practical, feed a cow on a greater variety of herbivorous material. It might be as clever as one of Pratchett’s camels5. Come to think of it, how big a variety of foodstuffs do they eat? Could this explain his thesis that camels are the world’s great mathematicians?

Just how bright were the dinosaurs?

DJS written in 2007
 but used at PMC more than once.


1 Come on, you don’t need this explained: 53=125 > 102, hence two orders of magnitude, meaning decimal places. You might note an assumption of use of base ten.

2 One of the many Kelloggs cereals, for those who have not explored eating such at breakfast. This belongs with a high-dairy diet, not common in Asia. 

3 I invite you to imagine the ridiculous situation caused by rain; since the goats get wet in rain, one must go and pull up the stake to put them under cover. The moment the stake is clear of the ground they’re off to somewhere - and since they’re on a common stake, that’s a committee decision, based largely upon the direction they’re facing at the time. So yours truly has more than once been full length and sliding downhill in slicks, towed by a near-hysteric foursome of billies and nannies. Funny if it is not you face-down. In the grass.

4 A wether was a boy sheep. A tup is still a boy sheep.

5 Terry Pratchett, Pyramids, in which it becomes clear that the greatest mathematician in the universe are camels. Unnecessary quote: "Camels gallop by throwing their feet as far away from them as possible and then running to keep up."


 

 

© David Scoins 2017