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The presence of Icelandic leadersheep affects flock behaviour when exposed to a predator test

By Emma Brunberg, Emma Eythórsdóttir, Ólafur R. Dýrmundsson, Lise Grøva

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Abstract

Genetic selection in commercial sheep production has mainly focussed on production traits and to a large extent ignoring behavioural traits, such as response towards predators. The Icelandic leadersheep is a sheep breed selected and known for its special behavioural traits, such as leading the flock and bringing it home from pasture in case of danger. Those traits are also said to be beneficial in areas with a high predator pressure. In this study, it was investigated if there are behavioural differences in sheep flocks with and without a leadersheep present. Behaviour of sheep flocks was observed before, during and after a predator test, in small groups of Icelandic sheep with or without a leadersheep in the group. Eleven groups of Icelandic sheep with six ewes in each group were observed in a test arena while a human, a dog and a drone passed through the pasture. Six of the groups included a leadersheep and the remaining five did not. Groups including a leadersheep spent more time grazing after both the human and dog test, indicating a faster recovering to normal behaviour. They were also located close to the exit during the dog test compared to groups without a leadersheep, fitting well with the assertion that leadersheep bring the flock home in case of danger. During the drone test, groups with a leadersheep however spent more time moving around compared to the other groups. Since the sheep had experienced both humans and dogs before, but not drones, this may indicate that groups with leadersheep recovered quickly from the figurants they had experienced before, but tended to react more in the test which was a new situation. In conclusion, it appears likely that the earlier selection for leader traits in the leadersheep have indeed changed both their own behaviour and also that this has an effect on the behaviour of group members.

Publication Title Applied Animal Behaviour Science
Volume 232
Pages 105128
ISBN/ISSN 0168-1591
DOI 10.1016/j.applanim.2020.105128
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Tags
  1. Behavior and behavior mechanisms
  2. Genetics
  3. predators
  4. Sheep