Johan Vlaeyen Johan Vlaeyen Sacha Ruland

“Fortunately, sheep don’t bark”

Written by  Annelotte Huiskes Thursday, 04 July 2013 07:48
Back home after his two-hour train commute, the first thing Johan Vlaeyen does is visit his sheep. “It helps me switch off and unwind”, says the professor of Behavioural Medicine at the universities of Maastricht and Leuven. His home in the Belgian countryside overlooks a pasture on which his flock of 18 Mergelland sheep graze.

It all started in 1991 when, as a gift for completing his PhD, he received two lambs from his colleague. The colleague was a member of Oos Mergelland Sjaop (OMS), an association founded in South Limburg in 1978 to protect the local Mergelland sheep, then threatened with extinction. The Euregion now has roughly 1500 Mergelland sheep and the association enforces a strict policy to ensure the breed remains pure and free of ‘defects’, such as horns or an underbite. “A team of inspectors comes by every year to check the sheep. Each sheep has to score at least 90 points to be officially certified as a Mergelland sheep. A typical characteristic of this breed is its smooth, oily fleece – we don’t want curly fleece, like you see on Texel sheep”, Vlaeyen smiles.

The smell of sheep 

But why sheep? As befits a true scientist, he has a carefully prepared answer. “I expected this question”, he says as he reaches for his notes. “In my daily research I’m focused on very complex and abstract things. Sheep are the embodiment of simplicity – they graze, they chew their cud and they sleep. When I watch sheep graze I can’t help but think how simple life really is. Second, it’s a matter of outside versus inside. In my work I’m usually stuck behind a computer. But the sheep force me to go outside. The same would be true if I had a dog, but that brings me to my third point: sheep don’t bark. They’re extremely quiet animals. If a sheep bleats it means there’s something wrong. When everything’s fine, you don’t hear a sound. But dogs bark even when they’re happy, and that’s just too much excitement for me. Unlike dogs, sheep need no attention at all. But they are social animals – herd animals – and can’t survive alone. I like watching them interact. Every sound they make has meaning. They bleat, but they also make this soft grunting noise, which means they’re happy. This is also how they call their lambs. Plus, I like the smell of sheep wool. I think it ultimately comes down to the contrast with my work – together the two sides balance each other perfectly.”


Pain stimulus

At work, Vlaeyen is a chronic pain researcher. “There’s no curative solution to 90% of chronic pain. People take all kinds of medication, but it rarely helps. A recent European study revealed that 20% of the European population suffers from pain that lasts longer than three months. That’s one in five people. Our research has shown that the context of the pain stimulus is extremely influential; even more so than individual differences. The same stimulus may be experienced as more painful in one context than in another.” Vlaeyen hopes to use this knowledge to develop new cognitive treatment methods that do help to alleviate pain, such as the successful Exposure Method developed in his behaviour laboratory and tested on patients at the Maastricht academic hospital. “This method was specifically designed for people who have developed a debilitating fear of their pain. Reducing this fear helps them better manage the pain. One of my PhD candidates recently conducted a second trial on this method among dystrophy patients, and we’re seeing great results there too.”   

Teeth grinders

How do sheep experience pain? “I’m not sure whether they experience chronic pain, but I do know they grind their teeth when they’re sick or in pain. As it happens, I recently read an article in a veterinary journal about fear of pain in sheep. Apparently, when an owner hurts a sheep, it quickly generalises this experience and develops a fear of all people. The article also referred to our research. So it’s nice that sheep have ended up reflected in my work as well.” 


The oldest sheep in his flock is now 14. The wool – roughly four to five kilos per sheep – is sent to a factory to make insulation. The meat is also given away, as the family are strict vegetarians. “One of my two daughters is quite the fanatic. She wants to become a Greenpeace activist and wears T-shirts with texts like ‘If it has a face, I don’t eat it’”, Vlaeyen laughs. The only exception is the occasional ram. “You can’t really keep a ram. If they can’t be used to breed, they’re usually slaughtered or castrated. I have two castrated rams in my flock that my daughters bottle-fed with milk after they were rejected by their mothers. Of course slaughtering them was out of the question, so we had them castrated. But the other rams are slaughtered and I always keep a bit of meat for myself. Ram meat is the tastiest and great on the barbeque. And for that very rare occasion when I do eat meat, the family turns a blind eye.” 

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