A sheep-herding rabbit

February 15, 2012 • 10:10 am

I’ve stolen this from Grrlscientist at the Guardian, who posted on “Champis, the sheep-herding rabbit” last Saturday.  It’s about a European rabbit who acts like a sheepdog. (Note: the music, “Run, rabbit, run” is a bit annoying.)

I take no responsibility for the claim that this lagomorph is deliberately herding the sheep. Perhaps he just has an affinity for sheep, and they run away when they see the bunny approach. (That testifies, at least, that the adjective “sheepish” is accurate!). But it sure looks as if he’s trying to keep the sheep under control.

UPDATE: I’ve since learned that Champis appeared at HuffPo, too, where it’s explained that he’s Swedish, 5 years old, and that he may indeed be herding sheep:

Greta Vigren said she first noted his talent last spring when they let out the sheep to graze for the first time after the long Swedish winter.

“He just started to behave like a sheepdog,” she recalled, adding that while he likes to round up the sheep, he is consistent about leaving the farm’s hens alone, treating them more gently.

“He’s like a king for the whole group. He thinks he rules over both the sheep and the hens. He has a very big ego.”

Dan Westman, a sheepdog breeder who shot and posted the video of his friends’ bunny, said he was in awe when he first witnessed the phenomenon, noting Champis does the job even better than most dogs would.

“It’s really incredible, it’s a herding rabbit,” he said. “He rounds them up, and if they get close to escaping through the gate he sometimes stops them,” he said.

“I mean I work with sheepdogs and know how hard this is. There are very few dogs that could do what this rabbit does.”

Westman, who’s known both Champis and its owners for years, said the beige little mix-breed bunny had never been trained for the job but seemed to have learned the ropes all on his own.

“He’s probably picked some of it up from watching the dogs,” he said.

I can imagine a new t.v. show on the BBC: “A man and his bunny.”

You go, bunny!

h/t: Diane G.

40 thoughts on “A sheep-herding rabbit

  1. Hmmm. Like you, Jerry,I think it is equally plausible that the rabbit is (who knows why) simply trying to get close to the sheep. The poor beasts are effectively trapped in the farmyard – I think a better test of the rabbit’s interest in herding the sheep would be if they were all out in a field somewhere. Bah, humbug!

        1. I’ve always loved that!

          In a very brief search I was unsuccessful in finding it, but did turn up this footnote (from Hitch-22):

          Everything about Christianity is contained in the pathetic image of “the flock.”

  2. Sometimes the rabbit causes the sheep to move an he chases after them. Other times the sheep move of their own accord and he runs after them. In neither case is herding obvious. All the owner need do is set up a small pen in the farmyard. If the rabbit herds the sheep into the pen then it’s hat eating day come!

  3. Sho! That’s some IQ for a rabbit. My daughter’s rabbit is so dof. If you try holding some nice treat out for it to eat, it growls and attacks you. Those sharp little claws can draw blood.

  4. It seems to me, from one edited short video, that the rabbit may be “herding” the sheep, i.e. forcing them to run away and holding them, but it’s not possible to tell if it’s doing it for any purpose, other than perhaps the sheer fun of pushing them around. The video doesn’t demonstrate the purposeful herding a sheepdog does, to force the sheep in a particular direction or to a particular location.

    Nevertheless, that’s a smarter bunny than the preconceived bunny-in-my-brain.

  5. Other hypothesis: the sheep learned how to move as a group / as a herd; then accidental movements of the rabbit caused movements by the herd (as they learned from the dog…) and this then was mutually reinforcing.
    Possible tests: Is this happening also with a “foreign” group of sheep? Does this herd react also when faced to another rabbit (or a rabbit-dummy?)?

    1. Aw, c’morrn. Obviously it’s herding the sheep. Is it farming? No. Does it hope to hold a spit braai with some friends? No. Is it working with the farmer on the level of a sheep dog? No. But is it herding? Obviously.

      An interesting thing about dogs is how they can read human expression and gesture. Rabbits, less so. When I offer my daughter’s rabbit a tasty morsel, it growls and attacks me. Even chickens know when they’re being fed but this thing hasn’t a clue how to read my behaviour. I’m thinking maybe it’s a scientist rabbit. It needs to reduce my behaviour to an empirically testable hypothesis that fits it’s model of evolutionary theory before it can trust me to be actually trying to feed it.

      1. Indeed. It may not be entirely fair to say that it’s “only running after them to make them move”, because that’s what “herding” is.

        Likewise, there’s little mechanical difference between a human eating food and a bunny consuming fodder.

        Can the bunny herd in any useful way? Probably not.

      2. Interesting question. Does it have to be useful in the right way to the farmer or the rabbit for it to be considered herding? On my own assumptions, I’d say you could call it herding even if it’s pointless or somewhat unskilled. As long as the sheep are being moved around in a group, you can call it herding. Besides, it would stop being cute, become a little scary if it was much more than that in this case. Visions of that vicious Monty Python rabbit come to mind … I still have nightmares.

  6. Very cute. Whatever he is doing it’s interesting and fun to watch. I confess to wondering, however, about the guy with the bucket. A bucket of sheep food? Are the sheep following him and the bunny following the sheep?

    1. I had only watched part of the video. There are some more convincing signs of the rabbit chasing sheep as you watch, but also some obvious signs of the guy with the bucket leading the sheep.

      Why can’t people do proper controls on their cute videos? 😉

  7. Watched the tape several times. Don’t really know why the rabbit is doing what he’s doing, but it is with the consent of the watchful border collie and the sheep are following the guy with the feed bucket.

  8. Herding or not, this is so over-the-top, fuzzy, squeezable cute that I don’t care! I just want to hug that awesome rabbit! Even though that Run Rabbit Run song is stuck in my head now.

  9. It looks like the rabbit is trying to drive the sheep from that corner of the barnyard. The only time it didn’t attempt to herd the sheep is when they were headed toward the opening between the house and barn.

    Aggressive little bastard.

  10. When you train sheepdogs you have to periodically swap the sheep, because they eventually learn to react to your commands and start herding themselves even without the dog.

    Don’t know if that’s what’s going on here, or whether it’s just a random interaction. What’s certain is that it’s only “herding” in the most generous sense of the word.

  11. Must be descended from the rabbit in Monthy Python’s Holy Grail.

    Now, that damn song is running through my head. That’s insidious.

    1. It’s especially insidious as it was on an old Muppets tape my kids watched over and over when they were small…

  12. Well, good at running them around in circles anyway. I can see a new version of Babe on the horizon. Babe and bunny team up to put the border collies out of business. However, the borders are too smart. They eat the rabbit and threaten the pig with having to memorize the Koran, become an imam and preach to Muslims. The pig relents and all the barnyard animals live happily ever after.

  13. It might know how to herd sheep, but I hope they don’t put it to work in the field. The foxes and wolves might not be afraid, as foxes don’t watch Monty Python.

  14. Having watched and re-watched this video, I’m not too sure that the bunny is actually “herding” the sheep.

    On the plus side, I got my weekly dose of sqeee. Unfortunately, one of the negative effects is that I now have the song “Run Rabbit Run” stuck in my head. It sounds so innocent until it gets to the part about Friday being “rabbit pie day” I suspect lil Champis would not appreciate that particular bit of lyric.

  15. Charles Jones in #16 hit it.

    The rabbit considers its den in the barn its territory, and it charges the invaders to chase it away.

    I have had a couple of rabbits, and it is quite alarming when a small, cute, fluffy bunny of a rabbit charges out of its cage to drive off the dog and the ferrets.

    I had to corral the ferrets in their cage before letting Halva the bunny out, because Halva was fearless. He would lay twitching his nose looking cute and all bunny-like so long as the dog, Bello (a boxer-Dalmatian mix) and the ferrets (Thyme and Oberon) stayed on the other side of my daughter’s room. But he had a zone in his head that he conceived of as his, and any interloper would be charged fiercely. The ferrets would go into his cage and drink from his water dish, and he would be beside himself, a fluffy, lop-eared, cotton-tailed Yosemite Sam of cuddly rage. He had no fear of the ferrets. There was another reason to keep them apart, too; the ferrets, particularly the female, Thyme, would go for the back of his neck. Of course, the really ferocious one was Thyme–she would attack the dog, who weighs about 50 pounds; Bello would lay down on the ground hoping the ferrets would be friends and play, and Thyme would bite his eyes. Bello is a sweetie and never retaliates, but now when a ferret is loose he keeps his distance and goes up on the bed when they come near, but clearly worries that they will get into untoward mischief in the apartment…which ferrets unerringly do.

    Anyway, the rabbit in this video is driving intruders away from his territory.

    I was amused to see the sheep in fear postures: side-to-side in a row, heads down. (We artificially selected out the horns, but the defensive posture is retained.) But the sheep are much bigger, and could trample and kick the rabbit easily, but as herd animals flee as a group instead.

    But, these sheep are dumb, and the rabbit is lucky. As Graham Chapman said: “That there’s ‘Arold. He is that most dangerous of animals: a clever sheep.”

  16. Another just-so nonsense hypothesis:

    Maybe the rabbit has been conditioned to think it’s a sheep. Maybe it wants to be part of the herd and fails to get into it.

    1. And “why” do dogs herd sheep? Not because they wake up in the morning and considers what would be the best way to spend the day. Rather because of a combination of instincts (to herd for the good of the pack) and social conditioning (to consider humans to be part of the pack).

      And “why” do the human shepherds herd sheep? Probably pretty much the same as the dogs (except that the ratios of social conditioning and instinct would be different).

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