Sunday, 29 June 2014

I appear to have become a sheep farmer

These beautiful Shetlands (sheep, not ponies)
are a very welcome addition to the smallholding,
Somehow over the last two weeks I have gone from having 9 sheep to having 23!

The nine I got from the Rare Breeds Farm are doing very well and are finally managing to make an impact on their patch of grass. However, this is just one section of the meadow...there are another 8 sections and the grass is still getting taller!

The nine lambs are what is known as cade lambs. When a ewe has triplets the third lamb has to be taken off her. If it can't be adopted onto another ewe then it needs to be bottle fed. It will probably end up slightly smaller than its brothers and sisters, but not appreciably so.
The advantage of buying in cade lambs is that they are incredibly tame, all the more so if they have been raised on a rare breeds farm where they are the main visitor attraction.

Hand-reared livestock. Fairly tame!
Basically we aim to purchase the lambs when the grass starts growing and they go on their final journey when the grass stops growing. That way we have no worries about lambing, feeding and housing over winter or long-term health issues to worry about. We don't have to worry about getting in a ram to cover the ewes either.

The other advantage of this system is that we can buy in as many lambs as have been pre-ordered by customers, plus a couple for ourselves. In fact, we have decided to operate an adopt-a-lamb scheme in the future. This is effectively pre-ordering of a lamb but with a more personal touch. People will be able to choose their lamb and visit it if they wish, although some will probably prefer not to see the lamb grow up in the knowledge that they will eventually be eating it! But, as a friend of mine said, "All livestock is deadstock".
If the scheme takes off, I plan to e-mail people photos of their lambs too.

The disadvantage of buying in lambs each year is the fact that availability varies from year to year. This year it proved extremely difficult to get hold of cade lambs and by the time we found a source May was almost over. It had been a warm and wet May and the grass was approaching elephantine proportions. Sheep are supposed to prefer to graze shorter grass, but with a little help from a hand sickle they have gradually got at least one patch under control.
The other disadvantage, of course, is the expense of buying in the lambs, but this is partially offset by other savings such as not having to buy in hay for the winter.

However, I have for a while had a yearning to keep a small flock of sheep throughout the year too, to complement the bought in lambs. I was keen to go for a 'native' breed, partly because being smaller they tend to lamb independently and they are well adapted to our winters. Also they are much happier to eat weeds and scrub and won't need anywhere near as much hay through the winter. They'll certainly help out with the mammoth task of eating all the grass and hopefully the grass won't romp away each spring before I can get the cade lambs in.
Being smaller, the native breeds are shunned by commercial farmers. After all, costs are pretty much the same whatever the size of the sheep, so it does not make sense for them to keep smaller sheep. But the smallholder does not have the same considerations as the large commercial farmers producing meat for a wide public. That small  native breed sheep will contain more flavour in that compact body than any commercial sheep. In fact, breeds such as North Ronaldsays and Shetlands are highly prized for their hogget or mutton. Keeping them into at least a second year means that they reach a more acceptable size.
The clues to their hardiness, if you know your British geography, are in their names, their origins being in the rugged, far northern isles of Orkney and Shetland.

And so it was that I had my eyes out for some Shetland sheep and when some year old rams were advertised locally and the price dropped significantly, I decided to take the plunge. Picking them up went without a hitch. They were more stubborn than I am used to, but the horns came in handy for 'leading' them into the trailer.

Three of them have quite magnificent horns. In fact, I have been asked to make sure I get them back when the rams eventually meet their maker. Apparently they are highly prized as handles for walking sticks or shepherds crooks. I digress. Those horns were the vital clue to the fact that these rams had not exactly been effectively castrated as young lambs! Clearly the rings had missed their mark.
This handsome boy may well end up as our breeding ram.
This boy is safe.
As a 'wether' he'll make a good companion for a more virile ram.

I wasn't sure about taking them, but I decided that even if they got too boisterous, I was buying a lot more meat than the sheep actually cost me. Besides, I would be able to choose the best one as a potential future breeder. The one who was no longer intact would make a good companion for him too.

These four ewes (one out of picture) are fine specimens.
I'm very happy with my purchase.
Now, anyone with any competence in arithmetic will be puzzled. For this still only makes 13 sheep. Well, I was on the lookout for maybe four more Shetlands, preferably ewes. So when I saw an advert for ewes, some with lambs, at a very reasonable price, I was quick to enquire. I was told that there were four ewes without lambs and two with. There were four lambs, all rams. I could have the lot for £250. I never quite planned to buy another ten, but somehow that's what I came home with! If it proves too many, I can always thin the flock down a little. But for now I can choose the best to  keep and they will certainly begin to make a bigger impact on my jungle of meadow.
Shetland lambs certainly have the cute factor.
The rams soon got over their initial excitement.
When I brought them back, I decided to let them in with the four rams, hoping that at this time of year the rams wouldn't be too interested in the ladies. As it was, they went into 'lad mode' for about half an hour, strutting around, sniffing the air and preforming some pretty impressive headbutts on each other! But it wasn't long before the calmed down. Better still, the new sheep came out of the trailer and headed straight for the nettles, which are now almost all gone. In fact, anything not in the paddock seemed infinitely more tempting for them than the grass. A short stretch of temporary electric fence has made sure they don't jump the rickety old fence in their eagerness to eat the hedge.

This ewe and her two lambs think the grass (or hedge)
is always greener on the other side.

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