Sometimes love knows no boundaries between species. Take Ocky the Sheltie dog from a farm in the Huon Valley in Tasmania who thinks he is a ewe.
He cuddles, nurses and helps the lambs get a start in life, even licking them when first born to get their motions going. Then he sleeps with them to keep them warm during a cold Tassie winter !
Or take Gypsy the horse from Harden, New South Wales, who thinks she is a mother sheep - or cow. She’ll stand over the lambs, protecting them, and chase off the mum to make sure the lamb is all hers.
Gypsy also took a calf off a first time mum and she kept pushing it around to her back end to feed.
Such examples of animal symbiosis are rare.
Ocky’s owner was amazed when he started showing maternal instincts to her Hampshire Down lambs.
“He keeps the lambs warm, he even snuggles up to them,” says his owner.
“He even licks their behinds when they are born like a mother sheep does so they go to the toilet. He goes out in the paddock too to check on them. It’s unreal. He acts like a mother.
“He seems to know when they are cold and and he seems to want to warm them up.”
Shelties were bred on the Shetland and Orkney Islands in Scotland the 1700s and are renowned for their gentle behaviour towards sheep. The breed was first recognised in England in 1909.
Sheltie breeder Carole Wiley of Orange says Ocky’s behaviour is not displayed by many shelties but they were bred to be close to their owners. She said they were bred in the wilds of Scotland to have the ability to scale the rocky walls used as fences there. “Quite often in winter they would sleep with the crofters (Scottish small farmers) to keep them warm,’’ she says. “They hate any birds and the crofters would get them to mind their crops to keep the birds away.” “They are great at herding animals and have acute hearing.” “But they are a working dog and you have to train them.”
Meanwhile, Gypsy the horse is busy looking after lambs on a farm on the mainland. The 26 year-old horse, or thereabouts, has just one eye, but sees well enough to keep an eye on her favourite lamb.
Her amazed owner says of her farm’s favourite pony that all her children once rode: “She was the perfect pony in every way with one bad habit. Such is the strength of her maternal urge she steals lambs and calves from their mothers, to the point where she stops them feeding. She hunts the mothers away.”
Gypsy was a bit cranky when she was moved away from this lamb eventually !
University of Sydney animal behavioural expert Greg Cronin says both cases were “unusual”, and more an indication of something “gone wrong”, rather than a unique display of symbiosis and affection.
“It is not unknown for hormonal changes in say sheep to see a ewe take a great interest in another’s ewes lamb, her oxytocin levels may be out of whack,” Dr Cronin said. (Oxytocin is the hormone often referred to as the “love hormone” and plays a major part in bonding).
“I think this is very unusual, technically it’s an abnormal situation and I can’t think of anything in scientific literature where that has happened or been researched.” Often the bonding is more likely between humans and animals, not between different animals. Aborigines often referred to a “three dog night”, meaning it was so cold they slept with three dingoes to keep warm, Dr Cronin said.