A sheep farm is a hive of activity year-round. In the UK, agriculture has advanced rapidly over the last century, with technology now forming a vital part of day to day life, but the overall processes, knowledge and care has been handed down through the generations for millennia. We look at the annual process of caring for and breeding sheep in the UK.
In September, ewes and rams are prepared for breeding. Rams need to carry a bit more weight on them than ewes, as one ram will serve anywhere from 25 to 100 ewes, depending on their breed, experience and environment.
Ewes must be in optimum condition, as an under- or overweight ewe may have difficulty conceiving or growing a healthy lamb.
Once the farmer is happy with the condition of ewes and rams, they are put together in a field for mating. Most farmers will selectively breed their best sheep to give lambs better qualities.
A ram is sometimes called a tup, and mating is often referred to as tupping.
He will sometimes have a thick oily paint called raddle on their chests, which will help identify which ewes he has served.
After six to eight weeks of rams and ewes being together, they will be separated so that the farmer can better control the ewes’ nutrition intake for a healthy growing lamb.
Sheep carry their lambs for approximately 145 days – if a ram goes in with the ewes on bonfire night, lambs will be born from April 1st – “In with a bang and out like fools!”
Just like human mothers, ewes are scanned to check on the progress and health of the lamb. This happens 6-10 weeks before the lambs are due, and is carried out by a trained contractor.
During scanning, it is vital to check how many lambs she is expecting, as this will determine how much solid feed will be required. Most lowland breed farmers aim for twin lambs, but it is not unusual for singles and triplets, or sometimes even quads and quins!
Some farmers choose to lamb under cover, some choose outdoors in the field. This depends on many factors, including breed, location and environment. If the ewes are lambing inside, they will be brought in 4-8 weeks before their due date. Hardier upland and hill breeds are more likely to lamb outdoors, while lowland breeds will generally be brought in.
Ewes are fed with a solid feed compound and silage/hay mixture. The high nutrient feed compound ration will be increased the closer to lambing a ewe gets, as the rumen (part of a her system of four stomachs) gets squashed by the growing lamb.
In the UK, most lambing occurs during March and April, but some ewes may be scheduled to lamb as early as mid December, all the way through to June. Again, this depends on the breed, environment and stock management.
Lambing is the busiest time of year for sheep farmers, as someone needs to be on hand day and night to ensure there are no lambing problems. Most ewes give birth with little problem, but occasionally a farmer may need to help, especially if the lamb is coming out backwards.
It is vital that lambs and their mothers are given time to bond, so they will often be moved to an individual pen if they are lambing indoors. During the first few hours, a lamb will have their first feed of colostrum (a thick milk produced by the ewe that is packed with nutrients and antibodies to help the young lamb grow), and will be quickly up on their feet bouncing around!
Ewes and their lambs will be turned out to the fields as young as possible, as they thrive best in open space with plenty of grass. Depending on conditions, this can be within as little as 12 hours from birth.
In early summer, shearing season begins!
Sheep naturally lose their wool if left to their own devices, but to prevent overheating, which can cause discomfort to the sheep and attract flies.
Shearing is a painless process, much like getting a haircut!
Over the last 100 years, the price of fleece has dropped dramatically due to the rise in popularity of artificial fabrics, and in the UK it is currently unsustainable to breed sheep commercially for wool. With the help of initiatives such as the Campaign for Wool, the popularity of wool is steadily rising, which is excellent news for farmers.
In the past few years, the price of fleece in most cases has not been enough to cover the cost of shearing.
During the summer months, lambs are weaned, generally from about 8 weeks old. By this age, they are getting their nutrients from grass, rather than milk, and are weaned to promote quicker growth.
Weaning also gives the news time to recover before lambing season – they will have lost several kilograms over the past few months by giving their nutrients to their lambs.
Lambs intended for meat are generally sent for slaughter from around August onwards. Earlier born lambs may be ready earlier and can command a higher price, but the earlier lambing season requires more compound feeding for the farmer, so not necessarily a bigger profit.
Some of the best ewe lambs are kept on the farm to improve the breeding stock, and will begin breeding the following year, at around 18 months old.