Sheep (Ovis aries) are most likely descended from the wild Mouflon (Ovis aries orientalis and Ovis gmelini) of Europe and Asia, and are considered one of the earliest of animals to be domesticated (approximately 10,500 years ago). Sheep husbandry is practised though out the majority of the inhabited world and there are estimated to be around 35 million sheep in Britain and globally over 1,200,000,000!
What has prompted you to consider keeping sheep? Are they to act purely as biological lawnmowers? Do you want to produce wool or organic meat? Does the prospect of breeding or showing animals appeal to you? Regardless of why you want to keep sheep, they will need an area of land to graze and perhaps a shelter from adverse weather. The land will have to be securely fenced, with a supply of clean water nearby. You will have to decide if you have the spare time and motivation to use that spare time to care for your sheep throughout the year, regardless of the weather, and if help will be available in times of sickness or holidays. The amount of time required to give adequate care to sheep, of course depends on your set up and number of sheep, can range from two short daily visits in the summer after shearing, to frequent intensive visits during each twenty four hour period at lambing time. If you think you can fulfil these basic requirements then keeping sheep can be a really rewarding and interesting venture.
How many sheep?
I believe in keeping sheep, and all animals, in as natural as possible social groups, so that means never keeping a sheep alone. The size of your flock overall will be dictated however by the size and quality of your land. Initially stocking rates should be no more than five ewes per hectare. The sheep will be healthier and less stressed and contented in under stocked conditions, rather than on over stocked land.
If there is a sheep keeping club operating locally this can be a great source of information about sheep generally and also members often have surplus stock for sale. A trip to a local livestock auction as well as a search online will give you an idea of the costs of different classes of sheep and what you’re likely to spend on your sheep. Ewes of four or five years of age that have already produced lambs are probably the best idea for beginners as they are experienced in motherhood and their care – even if you’re not! If the sheep are purely required to operate as walking lawnmowers then wether lambs (castrated males) maybe more suitable as they cost less to feed than ewes. When buying sheep if possible it is probably best to take an experienced person with you to help you choose quality stock. There are however certain basic standards which you should learn to look for however:
- The sheep should have a good mouth, with teeth which meet the pad on the top jaw neatly, neither under nor over shot.
- The overall conformation of the animal should be good, with strong looking straight legs, and walking with ease. A long level back is also desirable.
- If selecting a pure breed, ensure that the breed standards are met, e.g. the size, colour, and fleece quality are met.
There are many different breed of sheep, however, breeds can be largely categorised into three types:
The Short Wools, with breeds such as Dorset Down, the Hampshire Down and the Dorset Down, that were bred for their relatively smaller size, but faster mature time, docility and close flocking instincts.
The Long Wools, with breeds such as the Romney Marsh, the Lincoln Long Wool and the Devon Closewool, which in general are larger animals that mature more slowly than the Short Wools.
The Hill Breeds, with breeds such as the Scottish Blackface, the Swalesdale, and the Herdwick, which were bred to survive and prosper on the poorer areas of land that are largely unsuitable for other livestock or farming types.
The choice of which sheep breed you choose is largely down to what is available locally, what land you possess and your personal preferences.
Adequate food and water are two essentials for the health of your sheep. The actual amounts consumed will of course depend on the number, season and types of sheep you own. Clean water should be available at all times and although on good grazing sheep will obtain most of their food ration from the grass, to ensure the sheep remain in good condition supplemental feeding will be required, especially in the winter months. Good quality hay is a commonly given supplementary food as well as specially formulated pellet food. A supplementary mineral lick is also a good idea to ensure animals receive all of their basic nutrients.
Sheep require certain basic procedures to ensure their health and productivity remain good. These include foot trimming, vaccination, and dagging (removing the dung-coated wool on a sheep’s hindquarters). I would recommend the prospective sheep keeper undertake a beginners sheep husbandry course or gain direction from an experienced person before obtaining any sheep to ensure they can efficiently carry out these tasks. The shearing of sheep can be carried out by outside contractors, although sheep shearing courses at agricultural colleges and farms around the country are now available.
During the course of the year it will be necessary to handle your sheep for various reasons, for vaccinating, for foot trimming etc. Confining the animals in a smaller handling pen can make the job far easier and less stressful for both the handler and the sheep. A sheep can be immobilised and moved backwards and forwards fairly easily by catching the lower jaw in a cupped hand and taking the tail in the other hand. Again I would recommend the novice attend a sheep husbandry course before attempting to handle any livestock, or at least get some guidance from an experienced person. That said whenever you do handle sheep don’t be tempted to grab at their wool as sheep find this very painful!
Whether you want to produce wool for some craft, or produce your own meat or just keep the grass short keeping sheep can become a really rewarding venture. Sheep are engaging and endearing animals that exhibit real character to the people who take the time to look!