sheep pic largeFor many smallholders sheep are the second choice for livestock just after chickens; for myself it was not; in fact it was one of my last. What I know about sheep could probably be written on the back of a matchbox.

The Upside

Sheep are by far the best lawnmower there is; environmentally friendly and they taste great too. Two adult females (ewes) will provide a small family with all the lamb they would normally eat in a year i.e. two to four lambs, preferably borrowing a ram. The wool from two ewes could be spun for knitting or made in to felt, the skins from the culled lambs will make excellent rugs.

The Downside

Sheep are not pets they are cute I will grant you that but unless you are willing to invest a great deal of time in hand taming them they will not generally approach you. It is their nature to avoid human contact unless they require something from you i.e. food or water. Sheep need maintenance; their feet need to be trimmed every six weeks; they need to be helped to avoid worms; and they have to be sheered every year.

Trimming a sheep’s feet is imperative failure to do so could cripple your sheep irreversibly either from broken or deformed hooves or Ovine foot rot which is an interaction of two anaerobic (without oxygen), bacteria, ‘Bacteroides nodosus’ and ‘Fusobacterium necrophorum’.

Trimming sheep’s feet will serve two purposes one it will keep their feet in good shape and two it will give you early indication of any sign of ovine foot rot. Ovine foot rot is easy to spot not with your eyes so much as your nose; the infection causes a characteristic foul odour. You will need to consult a vet if you find it in your sheep.

Worms in seep are also a constant problem, you can simply dose them with a worming medication from your vet, or you can try to at least limit the amount of medication necessary by rotating your sheep on three different areas of land. This works because the worms cannot live outside the sheep’s body for more than three weeks. Therefore if you move your sheep from one pasture to another every two weeks not returning to the first pasture for four weeks your sheep wont re-infect themselves with worms.

Garlic is very well known for its medicinal purposes. Highly antiseptic, it is rich in sulphur and volatile oils. Garlic is one of the best worm expellants too. It also helps immunize against infectious diseases and helps in treating fever, gastric disorders, rheumatism and is affective against parasites such as ticks, lice and liver fluke. Garlic is also thought to increase the fertility of animals. There are a plethora of good plants that your sheep would be better for eating but I am running out of match box now so I will leave you to do some research in this area.

Shearing is a very skilled craft and is not for the faint hearted, please do not try it without supervision; there are many a ewe without nipples and rams without testicles as a result of poor shearing by amateurs. I have seen shearing done and in a very short time too, but by a professional and he made it look easy, as do all professionals.

Here in mid-France it costs only 2€ per sheep once a year a very small cost indeed. The equipment will cost you 250€ for a DIY set and your skill level could cost you a good ram. I would recommend you contact the professionals, ask your vendor whom he recommends and see if its possible to return with your sheep on the day he has his sheep sheared.

Feeding

Sheep can survive on little more than good pasture for most of the year with some high protein grain to supplement their late autumn and early spring feeding. But in the winter you will have to provide most of their feed; hay is the mainstay of their diet, and good hay is best, plus some high protein grain to top them up.

Good pasture is not just grass it is as much as 50 different types of grasses, along with wild flowers and herbs: Perennial Rye Grass, Meadow Grass, Creeping Red Fescue, Soft Rushes, Sheep’s Fescue, Tall Fescue, Timothy, Cocksfoot, Early Rye Grass, Natural Clovers, Yarrow, Dandelion, Chicory, Comfrey and Burnet are just a few examples. Many of these plants play an important homeopathic role in an animal’s body. So don’t just look for grass in your pasture and if all you can see on close inspection is grass them look to introducing some of the others plants in the list above.

Sheep need a plentiful supply of good clean water at all times, in winter this may mean you will have to break the ice on their trough several times a day, and in summer you will have to check on manually filled troughs just as often.

Housing Needs

This is the simplest of all the area of sheep management, sheep can manage without housing, but you will have to focus your reproduction timing for when it is less likely to be cold and wet. Not necessarily for the sheep as even newborn lambs can survive a degree of cold and wet, but you will have to be out there with them as not all births of lambs are free from problems. The fact is sheep are no longer natural animals we humans have been messing about with their gene pool for millennia, and many of today’s sheep breeds have lost the ability to deliver their young naturally. Your assistance may be required at birthing and you may well want to be warm and dry so housing has to be big enough for you and you ewes to occupy and perhaps even sleep in together.

Sheep are considered to be one sixth of an animal unit; in farming terms that means one acre of good pasture will be enough to feed a one animal unit. So if you have good pasture you can keep six sheep on each acre, but this is a very general rule and is open to much interpretation.

In mid-Wales although to the untrained eye it all looks wonderfully green and romantic, the pasture in general is of middle range quality and is usually only inhabited by four sheep per acre. In the highlands of Scotland, pasture is relatively poor and is usually only inhabited by two sheep per acre. Here in central France we have pasture which is comparable to mid-Wales so I only set four sheep to the acre on strict rotations.

Breeding in brief

I will cover this in more detail later but for now having mentioned timing of reproduction it seems remiss not to mention some basics. A sheep’s gestation period is about five months; it is said that if you put the ewes to the tup (ram) on the 5th of November you will have lambs on April Fools Day.

Timing is very important when planning your lambing – naturally ewes would have searched out the ram at times of plentiful food knowing they would need the good pasture to help them through the early part of gestation. You can of course cut back your ewes food a little, keeping them on poorer ground for a month, then put them on good ground to do what is termed flushing i.e. feed them up, then put the tup with them.

Ewes will be ready for the ram if they are feeling flush; five months later you will notice the udder enlarge and a couple of days later lambs will arrive. It is best to have your pasture at its best when the lambs arrive or you will have to supplement the feed of both the ewes and lambs at a greater financial cost to you.

However if you put the ewes to the tup as the saying goes on the 5th of November when your lambs arrive in early April your pasture will just be coming to its best and your lambs will grow on the spring flush.

Steve Hanson

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