Challenge

Subject:The Case of the Scottish Sheep 
Difficulty:●●●○○
Duration:25 minutes (estimated)
Stories and pictures go viral and spread across the Internet rapidly. This results in hundreds of photo variants. For analysis, it is always best to start with the highest quality picture.

One viral story is about a farmer who dyes his sheep. It has been repeated at Imgur, Reddit, Uberhumor, and many other sites. According to the story:
Freshly dyed sheep run in view of the highway near Bathgate, Scotland. The sheep farmer has been dying his sheep with NON-TOXIC dye since 2007 to entertain passing motorists.
Here are three variants of the sheep photo:


Sheep A

Sheep B

Sheep C


  1. Which photo is the highest quality?
  2. Is the highest quality picture digitally altered?
  3. Can you find a better source for the original?
  4. Is this viral story with this picture real?
  5. Ignoring the picture, is the story real?
Hint #1
Look for the largest dimensions and the largest file size.
Hint #2
Do all of the colors stay on their respective sheep, or did someone color outside the lines? You will probably need to view the largest picture at full size -- select "Original" and click on the lower picture.
Hint #3
Try using an image search engine. (On the analysis page, click on the Z button.)
 Hint #4
Re-read the viral story (it is only two sentences). Do any of the key details match the analysis results?
Hint #5
Search news sites for "dyed sheep" and "Bathgate". Ignore any results that show this picture.


Answer #1
Sheep B is the highest quality. The digest and metadata both identify that B is 736x1118, while A is 350x531 and C is 728x1105. Scaling any picture larger results in blurring. Since Sheep B has the largest dimensions and does not appear blurry, it should be the highest quality.

Sheep B is also the largest file size. When a JPEG is resaved, it becomes a smaller file -- even if the image dimensions remain unchanged.

According to JPEG %, Sheep A was last saved at 94% quality. Sheep B is at 95% and Sheep C is at 80%. Even if the pictures were all the same dimensions and roughly the same file size, Sheep B would still be the highest quality image.

In this case, Sheep B has the largest dimensions, biggest file size, and highest last-save quality.
Answer #2
Using observation, the edge of the cyan sheep (front center) loses the cyan color next to the center red sheep. The edge between the red and purple sheep is gray and not red or purple. And the magenta sheep on the left/middle has some of her color on the purple sheep. These details are not as obvious in the lower quality images and not obvious when the picture is scaled smaller. These color boundary issues strongly suggest digital alterations.

ELA also identifies an artificial focus along the lower third of the picture. This appears as a bright horizontal band that is independent of the picture's content.
Answer #3
Google Image Search is based on the coloring in the image. It finds many versions of the colored sheep. The various sources all give similar stories about the Scottish sheep farmer.

The TinEye search engine is based on similar shapes. TinEye identifies the original, uncolored sheep picture.

Sheep

The photo originally came from the USDA. The caption reads, "Research flock at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station near Dubois, Idaho." It was uploaded to the USDA web site on January 17, 2003. The photo is found at http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/graphics/photos/k4166-5.html.
Answer #4
Every key detail in the viral story is fictitious. The sheep are not dyed, the location is not Scotland, and the photo is not from 2007.
Answer #5
There is some truth to this story. A BBC News report from 2007 discusses dyed-red sheep as part of an art project. In 2011, the Telegraph reported on sheep dyed-purple to raise awareness for a cause. There are also blogs that reported on red sheep in 2008 and blue sheep in 2015.


2007 BBC News

2011 Telegraph

2015 Blog


There does appear to be dyed sheep at the Pyramid Parks on M8 in Bathgate, Scotland. However, according to the news stories, the reason for coloring the sheep seems to vary by year (it is not specifically "to entertain passing motorists"), and the news does not appear to report on it every year.

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