The truth about China’s sheep circles

The mystery of a flock of sheep walking in circles for 12 days straight has baffled the world.

Multiple videos (from multiple angles) have shown the animals going around and around on a farm in Inner Mongolia, North China.

So, what exactly is causing the strange phenomenon? Well, there have been several theories put forward but there is one considered the most plausible.

Rare bacterial disease?

One possible reason for the movement of the sheep is the disease ‘Listeriosis’ or ‘Circling Disease.’

Circling Disease is described as a localised infection of the brain stem of ruminants by Listeria monocytogenes, which typically results in a lack of control of movement or paralysis.

The bacteria can infect sheep through the soil, food and faeces, with circling just one symptom of the disease.

Others reportedly include depression, a lack of appetite and a lack of coordination.

There is, however, a reason to think that this isn’t the cause of what’s happening in North China. According to the experts, the disease usually causes death within two days, so the sheep shouldn’t still be moving.

China sheep circles
A screen shot from a ground-level video of the sheep walking in a circle in North China.

The most plausible explanation?

Chinese state media has reported the sheep have been displaying the behavior since November 4 and were continuing as of November 21. It’s unclear if they have stopped to eat or drink.

The owner of the farm, who has been identified as Ms. Miao, told local media that there were intially only a few sheep displaying the behavior, but gradually the whole flock started joining in.

China sheep circles
A screen shot from a video showing the sheep walking in circles in North China.

Perhaps the most logical explanation is one that’s been shared by Matt Bell, a professor at the Department of Agriculture at Hartpury University, in Gloucester, England.

Bell told Newsweek it could be related to them being kept in the one small pen for a long period of time.

“It looks like the sheep are in the pen for long periods, and this might lead to stereotypic behavior, with the repeated circling due to frustration about being in the pen and limited (as to where they can go).

“This is not good. Then the other sheep join as they are flock animals and bond or join their friends,” Bell said.

The report suggests that sheep have a social instinct that tells them to follow the animal in front of them to evade predators and protect others.

However, it is strange for them to move in such a synchronized was for such a long period of time.