Many people view sheep as being pretty uninteresting, but studying them can reveal valuable insights into human interactions with the environment.
That's the firm view of Emeritus Professor Graeme Martin, from the University of WA's School of Agriculture and Environment, who has earned international recognition for his research analysing the factors that determine sheep reproduction, and which could be used to improve human health.
Professor Martin, from Jolimont, has been awarded the 2021 Marshall Medal by the UK-based Society for Reproduction and Fertility. The Marshall Medal was established in 1963 as the highest honour the society awards in the field of reproduction and fertility.
Professor Martin said receiving the award was a great honour, as it acknowledged a lifetime of research in the field of reproductive biology.
"My research focuses on analysing how sheep recognise and measure the environment around them, and how this information influences their reproductive system," he said.
"The sheep is an amazing and important farm animal, which also represents a valuable experimental model for human medicine research.
"Sheep get a lot of bad press but they are actually really interesting animals if you look at the biology."
Professor Martin said a sheep can recognise more than 50 individual sheep faces for at least two years.
"Female sheep possess the ability to recognise the distinct smell of an individual male and ovulate within days if the male is new to her," he said.
"By closely studying sheep, we can develop a better understanding of how the human reproductive system is influenced by environmental factors."
Professor Martin said reproductive control systems in the brain measure the length of the night and the body reserves of energy to assesses the socio-sexual surroundings, before deciding on a strategy for successful reproduction.
"I have studied all of these individual environmental factors, but my real contribution was to consider them all at once, the way a sheep does," he said.
"The interaction between the factors is often more important than the individual factors themselves."
Professor Martin, who grew up on a sheep farm, has always been fascinated by how the sheep brain operates.
He said future research in this area would help develop a greater understanding of how animals respond to their environment.
"Rather than control reproduction in farm animals with hormone injections, if you got animals to respond to natural stimuli you wouldn't need injections," he said.
"If we can understand how they respond to their environment, then we can manipulate the environment and they will respond through natural processes.
"This will allow us to use the environment to influence and control the animal, which is the foundation of 'clean, green, and ethical' management."