Livestock

An Introduction to Keeping Sheep

We started keeping sheep in September 2007 when we bought three registered Coloured Ryeland ewe lambs from a friend of ours. Our intention was to turn grass into lamb for our freezer, perhaps with a small surplus to sell to friends and family.

Why Coloured Ryelands? Well, we wanted a British rare breed (although the Ryeland’s popularity has grown enough to elevate it off the RBST Watchlist and into the Minority breed category) and the small size, docile nature and reputation for tasty lamb made it seem a good choice.

At its simplest, keeping sheep is a dawdle. Sheep eat grass, with maybe a wee bit of concentrate, and then turn miraculously into prime lamb. In truth, it’s not quite as simple as that but if you go into sheep keeping well prepared, you’ll be better able to secure your prime lamb without too many grey hairs.

This guide is intended to give an overview of keeping sheep; it is not an in-depth bible for the shepherd. However, if you are contemplating getting a few sheep, then hopefully it will help you make up your mind.

Why keep sheep?

There are a number of uses for sheep:

  • To produce lamb for the table
  • To produce fleece for spinning, knitting and other craftwork
  • To mow the lawn
  • To produce pedigree stock for sale
  • To show

You may want to keep sheep for one, some or all of the above – but do consider your reasons before proceeding.

A lamb for the freezer

If you have some grassland and would like to produce a couple of lambs for your freezer, then running a couple of lambs from weaning in June / July until slaughter in October / November is probably the simplest way to start keeping sheep. Like most flock animals, sheep don’t thrive if kept alone, so you will need to have at least two.

Most lambs are born in the spring – March / April – are weaned in July / August and slaughtered at around six months old in October. The lighter, primitive breeds, like Shetlands and Soays will take longer to fatten and will probably need to be kept over winter, so if you are just looking for lambs for the summer, best to go for the down breeds or commercial types like Suffolk or Texel.

Our lambOur first lamb for the freezer, butchered by Stuart Minick in St. Andrews

You may be able to buy weaned lambs to fatten over the summer / autumn or you may be able to buy a couple of ewes with lambs at foot in late Spring then sell both ewes and lambs in the Autumn.

Alternatively, a local sheep farmer may be able to let you have some orphan lambs at lambing time – he may even let you have them for nothing, if he doesn’t have the time or inclination to raise them himself. However, raising orphan lambs is not without its challenges – more of this later!

Sheep for fleece production or as lawnmowers

If you like sheep but don’t want to eat your own, you could keep a small flock as lawnmowers and / or to produce fleece. Actually, your sheep will produce fleece whether you like it or not, so it’s an issue you will have to deal with if you own adult sheep.

If you are a keen knitter, hand-spinner or craftworker, you may want to keep some sheep for their fleece. All sheep grow a fleece each year; most need to be sheared in early summer, although a few breeds shed their fleece and a few can have it plucked out (roo’d). It will then regrow in preparation for winter. A sheep will need to be shorn for the first time in the summer after the year in which it was born i.e. at about 15 months old.

Coloured Ryeland WoolOur first Coloured Ryeland wool

All sheep in good health will produce good fleece but if this is your purpose, a small flock of wethers (castrated males) or unbred ewes will keep the grass down and produce an annual wool harvest without the hassle of lambing. Tups (uncastrated males) are not suitable for this purpose as their hormones can make them aggressive.

The quality and suitability of the fleece for your purposes will depend to a large extent on the breed of sheep, but also on the strain, the management and the quality of shearing and subsequent fleece handling.

Many of the British rare breeds are both attractive to look at and produce excellent fleece, so if you are looking for sheep for fleece or for lawnmowing, there is a rare breed for you.

Since these sheep are likely to be with you for a number of years, you will need to think about their long-term health and welfare.

Breeding sheep

If you want to go the whole hog, so to speak, you will want to buy some ewes, have them mated, give birth to their lambs, rear them and produce your prime lamb for your freezer or sale. Or you may want to have pedigree sheep and breed for showing, or selling for breeding.

There is obviously an awful lot more to these enterprises than raising a couple of orphan lambs so it pays to do your research and avoid costly mistakes. Again, more later.

How many sheep can I keep?

A sensible question to ask yourself is “how many sheep can I keep?” This is a “piece of string” question and depends on so many factors. However, grazing is usually the limiting factor.

For guidance, work on 3-4 ewes per acre, up to six on good, fertile grassland, fewer on less productive grass. You will also have to take into account the needs of other grazing livestock, including poultry. And large breeds, raising twin lambs, will need more grazing than a small ewe with a single lamb.

There is more information about stocking rates in the guide on Grassland Management. The most important thing is not to overstock or your grassland may become damaged by poaching and infested with parasites.

Rosemary Champion

About Rosemary Champion

Rosemary lives on a 12 acre smallholding in Angus, in the east of Scotland, where she keeps Ryeland Sheep, Shetland cattle and assorted poultry. She was destined to be a smallholder from an early age.

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