Livestock

Breeding Sheep

If you decide that you want to breed your own lambs as part of your sheep enterprise, this guide will help you to get started.

Get some hands-on experience

Lambing is undoubtedly the pinnacle of the sheep keeper’s year and while research, reading and watching videos is useful, please make a big effort to get some hands on experience either on a lambing course or with an experienced shepherd.

Ryeland lambSome hands-on experience will help to ensure successful lambing

I believe the most important thing about lambing is quickly recognising when you’re beat and calling the vet – guddling about inside a ewe for too long can leave you with dead lambs and a dead ewe, where a trip to the vet or a call-out would have saved all. Usually your vet will be happy to talk through what they are doing, so that you can learn from the process but it must be pretty disheartening for the vet to be called out when, really, it’s too late.

Oh, and if you do have to get the vet out, it’s nice to offer them somewhere with hot water to wash up afterwards. :-)

While lambing is probably the most important time of the shepherd’s year, the preparations start about seven months before lambing with the selection of breeding stock and preparation for tupping.

Seasonal breeders

Most breeds of sheep are seasonal breeders i.e. they come into season as the day length shortens, so October / November. With an average gestation period (length of pregnancy) of 147 days, this means that lambs are born in spring, when the weather is good (hopefully) and the grass is growing (again, hopefully).

There are a few breeds that are not seasonal breeders – the Poll Dorset and Dorset Horn for example – and some that are not strongly seasonal and can be encouraged to ovulate as early as July, thus allowing breeders to lamb in December / January and produce fat lambs for the Easter market to secure premium prices.

Lambing in mid-winter means that sufficient, suitable housing is required as well as a high standard of stockmanship, as housed sheep are susceptible to a number of health issues.

Those who exhibit sheep tend to lamb in January, if at all possible, so that lambs in particular are well grown by the time the summer show season comes around. A six-month-old lamb in June will have an awful lot more “presence” in the ring than a three-month-old lamb.

Record keeping

We’ll look at the contents of the lambing box later, but it’s always useful to have a notebook and pencil with you when you are around your sheep and to keep written records of performance. Software is available but a simple spreadsheet is easy enough to set up.

Lambing spreadsheetPart of the summary tab of our simple lambing spreadsheet

At lambing time, when it can get a bit frantic, it’s easy to think that you’ll remember things – but trust me, you won’t so write it down at the time.

Whatever your motives for breeding sheep, please do keep written records of some kind – they will be useful when it comes to selecting your breeding stock in future years.

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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