A LASQUETI HERITAGE MOMENT
OUR QUEER SHEEP
I’ve been interested in our local heritage sheep for many years. About 45 years ago I noticed two rams, one black and one white, who looked really healthy. They didn’t seem to take part in the seasonal ram and bump competitions. They were cool; above the reproductive turmoil. Since then, I’ve observed other rams who seemed to be healthier, and better dressed, than the rest of the herd. They weren’t interested in chasing the ewes to exhaustion.
I’ve always wondered what was going on. Fast forward to 2022 and, thanks to Willy et al, we have the answer. They’re gay.
According to an article in the Globe and Mail written by the sheep expert and author Sally Coulthard, “researchers have found that in any flock of domestic sheep, about 8 per cent of the males seem to prefer the company of other males, even in the presence of fertile females. There are plenty of other examples of homosexuality in the natural world, from female macaques to male fruit flies; many species engage in same sex behaviour, whether by accident or for pleasure and social bonding. But the majority of those other animals seem to switch between homosexual and heterosexual behaviour; they don’t show consistent sexual orientation. Only two species have ever been seen to show same sex preference for life, even when partners of the opposite sex are readily available: humans and, surprisingly, domestic sheep.
For a long time, homosexual behaviour was seen as ‘unnatural’ , a view that persists in certain places around the world. How could it possibly be beneficial for the survival of a species, the argument goes, to have same-sex couples, which aren’t able to pass on their genes to the next generation? And yet, what the science of sheep sexuality shows us is that homosexual behaviour doesn’t challenge Darwinian ideas, but may in fact reinforce them.
The theory is that there may be one particular gene that reveals itself in two different ways: The gene that expresses itself as homosexual behaviour in male sheep could be the same gene that increases a female sheep’s fertility. The female siblings of gay sheep produce more offspring than average, helping that specific gene to carry on in subsequent generations. In other words, the gene that predisposes some sheep to be homosexual promotes reproductive success in others. Sheep farmers have, over the centuries, enhanced the effects of this gene by choosing and breeding from females that are the most fertile.”
It’s pretty groovy what 11,000 years of co-existence has produced. Tom W.