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Keeping Sheep – 2 – The Shepherd’s Calendar

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Caring for the flock at lambing time takes a great deal of commitment, but is immensely rewarding.

Caring for the flock at lambing time takes a great deal of commitment, but is immensely rewarding.

 

In the second part of her series on keeping sheep, Dot Tyne explains the importance of the shepherd’s calendar and covers the breeding process, shearing, and offers advice on health planning

See also:
Keeping Sheep – part 1 – An Introduction
Keeping Sheep – part 3 – Meat, Fleece and Milk
 

The Sheep Book for Smallholders

Having made the decision to keep sheep, it’s a good idea to consider carefully what your flock is going to need from you throughout the year, in the way of general care and attention. As I mentioned in part 1, the level of care required will depend to a large extent on the type of sheep you decide to keep, the way in which you intend to manage them, and what you are aiming to get out of them. One of the nice things about sheep is the cyclical nature of the shepherding year. Unlike dairy farming, where you may be stuck with the same routine day in, day out, throughout the year, there is plenty of seasonal variety in the shepherd’s calendar – there’s always something different to look forward to, so you never get bored!

Whatever the aims and objectives are for your flock, it’s best to have a plan. This can be relatively simple initially, and you can build up the detail as you go along, for reference in future years – as your knowledge grows you will, in all likelihood, add to and tweak your strategy to make it more efficient, or to take account of new aims or fresh experiences. Livestock keeping is a constant learning process, and even the most skilled shepherds will learn from their sheep and continually add to their store of knowledge.

Our own flock of Welsh Mountain ewes lamb conventionally in March, and the basic shepherding activities carried out would be similar to that of any smallholder’s breeding flock, albeit on a somewhat larger scale. With this in mind I will run through some of the key events of our year, to give a broad idea of the sort of jobs that would need to be done with your own flock.

Tupping time is generally considered to be the start of the shepherding year. This is when the ram goes in with the ewes for mating. Keeping a male may not be justifiable if you only have very few ewes, but another sheep keeper nearby may be willing to let your ewes run with his ram, or possibly they might have a ram lamb that they could lend you. A ram lamb, so long he has reached a sufficient level of maturity, will be perfectly capable of getting a small number of ewes in lamb.

If you do decide that you want to have your own ram, consider buying an older, proven animal.

Mature tups can usually be purchased relatively cheaply compared to their younger counterparts, and generally know their job. They may well look past their best, but remember that they have the same genetics as when they were smart young things! Many commercial flock owners will replace their rams once they get to four or five years old, but in a smaller flock, where they can be given a little extra TLC, they will happily continue working for several more seasons.

The average gestation period for sheep is 147 days, so, in order to work out when to put the ram in with the ewes, decide when you want to start lambing (you might need to book some time off work, or fit it in with school holidays) and work backwards from there. It is much better to calculate the dates this way around – lambing is a big commitment in terms of both time and effort, so it makes sense to plan carefully. This year we are aiming to start lambing around about the 12th of March, so the tups were put in on the 15th of October. Keep a close eye on the ram’s activity while he is in with the ewes, so that you can spot any potential problems early on.

Poor fertility is surprisingly common in rams, so you need to be sure that he’s doing his job.

In order to check this, the ram should be raddled. This is either a coloured paste that is smeared on his chest, or a coloured crayon held in place with a webbing harness, that marks the ewes bottoms when mating occurs.

The coloured raddle crayon on the ram's chest marks each ewe served.

The coloured raddle crayon on the ram’s chest marks each ewe served.

If you change the colour of the raddle when the ram has been in for a fortnight, then you’ll be ready to look out for repeat matings, as ewes come into season at seventeen-day intervals. If there are a lot, you will need to investigate why this might be, and possibly take steps to replace the ram, otherwise you might have a very disappointing spring, and an empty freezer next autumn!

Ideally, leave the ram with the ewes for about six weeks or so, and then take him away (or return him if he is borrowed). I do know of some small flock owners who leave the ram in with the ewes for most of the year, and, if your ewes are all in lamb, they will live together quite contentedly. However, there is the risk that you might end up with a very protracted lambing period. If you work from home this may not be a problem, but could be difficult to manage otherwise.

Pregnancy scanning is something that we consider to be a huge benefit to the management of our flock. To know with virtual certainty which ewes are in lamb, how many lambs they are carrying and which ones are barren, is a boon. It enables us to tailor the feeding and management of the ewes according to their needs, and, as a result, have a more successful lambing period with fewer problems. There is, of course, a cost associated with it, but in my opinion it is worth every penny. We pay on a ‘per ewe’ basis (about 50p at the time of writing this – 2012), but smaller flocks may be charged a minimum call out fee. With the amount of feed you save by not overfeeding barreners or ewes carrying singles you will quickly recoup the cost of the scanning, and by making sure that twin-bearing ewes get enough to eat you will have better, stronger lambs at birth. Our scanning man likes to scan the ewes about ninety days after the ram was put in, but ask your own contractor well in advance what he prefers, and plan accordingly. This year we scanned on the 8th of January.

I don’t intend to talk about feeding and care of in-lamb ewes in any detail, as it is beyond the scope of this article, so you must do some research, ask some questions, read a good book and come up with a sensible feeding plan for your flock. The aim is to have them fit, but not fat. Overweight ewes are likely to give trouble at lambing time, something we aim to avoid if at all possible.

 

Feeding in-lamb ewes.

Feeding in-lamb ewes.

Lambing time is the most intense period in the shepherding calendar. You need to be well prepared, and resign yourself to the fact that, for a while, you are likely to be very short of sleep! I usually reckon on getting about four hours in bed each night when lambing is at its busiest – it’s not a lot when you still have all the other jobs around the holding to do and a family to feed. Having said that, it is extremely rewarding when it goes well – Tim seems to thrive on it, and as soon as one lambing season is over he’s looking forward to the next!

You will need to decide whether to lamb your sheep indoors or outside. Both have positive and negative points to consider. If you have a suitable building, it is probably just as well to bring them in, particularly if you are shepherding on a part-time basis. We usually house our ewes a week to ten days before the first ones are due to give birth, so they have time to adjust to being indoors, and it allows us to keep a closer eye on them in the last few days of pregnancy. If you’re short of grass you could bring them in earlier than that, to give the grazing a rest so that there may be some regrowth by the time they are turned out with their young lambs. If problems crop up they may be spotted more easily indoors, and it is generally much less stressful to catch and deal with a ewe that needs attention if she’s in a pen indoors than it is if she’s got the freedom of a large field!

Most lambings are totally straightforward, and with luck and good management there is no reason why your ewes should not all have normal deliveries. The key thing is to be able to spot when things aren’t going well, and to judge the best way to deal with it.

If at all possible, help out with lambing on a local farm to get an idea of what’s involved, and learn to distinguish between what is normal and what is not. Read up on the subject, and if necessary go on a course. Bear in mind, though, that most short lambing courses will focus on coping with difficulties rather than looking at the wider picture, and may end up scaring you witless by telling you all the things that could go wrong! Yes, there is scope for things to go awry in the lambing shed, but most of the time it doesn’t happen. One of the most important things you can do is spend time observing the sheep. This way, you will learn the habits of your ewes, where they like to lie, who their friends are, which ones are bossy and so on, and by learning their normal behaviour you will be more able to spot ‘odd’ behaviour, and hence potential difficulties, before they become problems. You will learn to understand your sheep, and this is what makes a good shepherd. Patience is an essential item in the lambing time toolkit – give your sheep plenty of time when they are lambing. Don’t rush them, and in most cases all will be well. If you are in doubt, stop and have a cup of tea, and then have another look before making any decisions.

 

Ewe and lamb turned out to grass.

Ewe and lamb turned out to grass.

Once your ewes have safely lambed and been turned out to grass you can relax a bit, and catch up on some much needed rest. Think ahead, though, as it will soon be shearing time!

We usually try to shear our sheep in the first half of June, although in a warm spring we may shear as early as the last week of May. Tim usually does all our shearing, and we tend to spread it out over two or three days, as we carry out a number of other flock health tasks while we’re at it. There have been one or two occasions when we have used a shearing contractor, but this is quite a costly way of getting the wool off your sheep. You will need to make sure that all the adult animals in the flock are shorn – don’t forget the ram and any other odds and sods you might have round about. If you only have a few sheep, and you decide to shear them yourself, then hand shears will do a perfectly good job so long as they are sharp. Tim usually does a few by hand (often sheep that are missed when we gather on the mountain), and it is a useful skill to have.

Tim always shears a few of our ewes by hand, although he uses a machine to do the bulk of the flock.

Tim always shears a few of our ewes by hand, although he uses a machine to do the bulk of the flock.

Hand-shearing is quieter, more portable and a lot cheaper than shearing by machine. It is also a lot slower than machine-shearing, and if you have any number to do, then using hand clippers is probably not going to be feasible. Second-hand shearing machines crop up fairly regularly at farm machinery sales, but even old ones tend to hold their value, so can they be quite expensive. Another option if you have a small flock, but too many to do by hand, is to use a 12V machine. These can be run off a car battery. They are cheaper than mains-powered units, and give you the flexibility to shear your sheep away from a power supply.

Make sure that your sheep are dry before shearing. It’s extremely dangerous to use a machine on wet sheep (for you and the sheep), and even if you are planning to shear by hand, the fleeces will not store well if they are damp.

If you are intending to use the fleeces for craft purposes, you need to take extra care when clipping to get the wool off as cleanly as possible. Make sure the floor is kept free from dust and dirt to reduce contamination, and pick any dirty bits off the fleece before you roll it up for storage. Commercial wool prices have risen considerably over the last couple of years, so even if you are planning to send your fleeces to The Wool Board, it’s worth looking after them. If you do decide to get a contractor in to do your shearing, go with a recommendation from a fellow small-scale sheep keeper. The going rate will probably be in the region of £1.40 per head, but, if you only have a small number, you may have to pay a minimum call out fee. Also, if you keep a breed of sheep that has wool on the head and legs, you may have to pay a bit over the odds.

With shearing over and done with it won’t be long until it’s time to wean the lambs. We usually do this when the lambs are about twenty weeks of age – so sometime in early August. The lambs will be eating a good deal of grass by this stage, and their reliance on the ewe’s milk will have dwindled. The ewes work hard to rear their offspring, and will need a break of at least eight weeks before going back to the ram again in mid October. Weaning is a simple process – you just separate the lambs from their mothers. Ideally, they should not be within earshot of each other, but if this is not a feasible option on your holding, try to ensure that there is at least one empty paddock between them. Check over your fences before weaning, as, for the first couple of days, they can be quite determined in their efforts to get back together! It is advisable to restrict the ewes’ access to grazing for a few days post weaning, as this helps the milk to dry up more rapidly.

 

Gathering ewes and lambs for weaning.

Gathering ewes and lambs for weaning.

 

Alternatively, put them indoors for a few days with only straw to eat (and access to water). Ideally, the weaned lambs should go on to some good grazing: perhaps into a field you cut hay or silage from a month or two ago. This should lessen the setback caused by weaning, and ensure that they continue to grow apace.

There is a large area of sheep keeping that I haven’t mentioned at all – dosing, vaccination and general health planning. Sensible prophylactic treatments are part of most annual shepherding plans, although if you are certified organic you will be restricted in what you are allowed to carry out in the way of preventative treatments. All holdings are different, and have varying needs and ways of dealing with problems.

I would recommend that you contact your local large-animal veterinary practice and arrange for some help in formulating a flock health plan.

The vet will be able to discuss with you the needs of your flock, taking into account any known health problems prevalent in your area, and will come up with a plan outlining what treatments should be given to which group of animals, and at what time of year. Do bear in mind that this is something that will probably need to be reviewed on a fairly regular basis: maybe every third year or so.

Your vet has access to up-to-date information, and will have kept abreast of any new medicinal products that might work wonders on your flock! I know that in some areas it can be quite tricky to find a vet practice that deals with sheep on a daily basis, so ask around amongst fellow sheep keepers to find out who they go to. There’s also a huge amount of information available on the Internet these days, which can be a help when planning your flock health strategy; but do be aware that some of the so-called ‘advice’ that can be found on the Web may have been posted by folk with less experience than yourself!

Dot and Tim Tyne live on their own smallholding in North Wales and are as self-sufficient as possible. They offer an advisory service to smallholders as well as comprehensive courses on shepherding and other related topics. For further information and dates of future courses please visit their website, www.viableselfsufficiency.co.uk or telephone 01758 721898

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