I keep pigs, goats, chickens, turkeys and ducks but my main duty/love/addiction is sheep. I suppose I am a shepherdess with a sickening inability to stick to one species of livestock…
I do LOVE sheep – they are docile, they are easy to look after, they are tasty and they are affordable. I therefore want to encourage as many people as possible to keep sheep, as they really are the gateway drug into farming. However often I hear wannabe sheep farmers unable to get over the first hurdle because they are concerned about breeding. They worry about keeping a ram, they worry about looking after pregnant ewes and they worry about lambing time. And let’s face it, they are all justified concerns! As a newbie smallholder or farmer, keeping sheep can be a complicated business; when it comes to tupping, pregnancy, lambing and weaning I certainly wouldn’t recommend it for the fainthearted or time-poor.
The tough times in sheep keeping, lambing for instance, and the expensive times (shearing, scanning, booster jabs, vet bills) are all part of keeping a breeding flock of sheep, so if you are just starting out try to make your life as easy as possible, rather than jumping in at the deep end. There are ways to keep sheep without having to worry about such things…
What I would hate to do, is to encourage someone to keep sheep and they find it all too stressful and have a bad experience because they have bought a starter breeding flock plus a ram, then realised that they have taken on too much (I have been there!). Just try not to run before you can walk, realistically think about the following questions if you are thinking of keeping your own breeding flock:
Have you got the space to separate your ewes, rams, ewe lambs and ram lambs? That is four separate fields and in an ideal world none of them should be adjoining.
Have you got the time and money to feed a flock through Winter? They may be living off grass and fresh air in the Summer but that sure isn’t the case when the grass isn’t growing.
Do you want to spend 365 days a year, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day with livestock relying on you for their food, health and well-being? Your two week annual break to Majorca will require a lot more planning and potential cost if you need to pass on the care of a flock to a relative, friend or outside assistant.
Do you have the time, help and experience to make it through a lambing season? That’s usually several weeks of getting up every 2 hours to check on your due ewes. Will you be able to get time off work, do you have someone willing to help you and do you have the knowledge to safely assist with the births?
There are a lot of factors to think about before taking on your first breeding flock and personally, if you are just getting into sheep and want to get used to their requirements or fancy a few months every year sheep-free (we all need a holiday right), then I think the following two suggestions could be the best way for happy sheep and tasty lamb to be present on your farm or smallholding.
Fattening Lambs for the Freezer
Unfortunately not entirely stress-free, but perhaps a simpler way to keep sheep, is to buy in newly weaned lambs and fatten them up ready for slaughter. This certainly isn’t going to be the most profitable way to keep sheep but if you are after an easier life or a steady introduction to sheep keeping, it is what I would definitely recommend. Most lambs are born in the Spring and are weaned in the Summer, usually around June/July. Commercial breeds will then be ready to eat from October/November or primitive breeds are more likely to be ready in the new year. The age any sheep reaches lamb weight does depend entirely on the breed, weather, ground and individual sheep, however remember if you keep your lamb past the 31st of December of the year they were born according to Trading Standards you cannot sell it as ‘lamb’, it will instead be classed as ‘hogget’.
Buying in cade/sock/spare/orphan lambs is becoming increasingly popular with small time farmers. This is another good way to start out if you are new to keeping sheep but it will require a little more expertise and dedication than simply bringing in weaned lambs, as suggested above. Lambs that are sold as ‘cade’, usually for £10-20 per lamb, mean they need to be hand reared with artificial ewe’s milk before they are weaned and ready to move on to a diet of solid food and grass.
The reason lambs are sold as ‘cade’ are often for the following reasons:
- the ewe has died during late pregnancy, birth or shortly after birth.
- the ewe gave birth to more than two lambs and therefore does not have enough teats to keep them all fed.
- the ewe did not have enough milk to feed her lamb(s).
A lamb without its mother is vulnerable enough, if the lamb was also premature because the ewe died before she was full term or is small for its age because it was a triplet/quad, then you really could be fighting a losing battle trying to raise it. I would obviously not recommend cade lambs to anyone who isn’t prepared to deal with losses and it is undoubtedly beneficial to have some experience as you are taking on a huge responsibility.
Again, this isn’t a route I would take to make the largest profits because raising cade lambs involves a lot of time, in the first week you will be feeding your lamb every four hours, night and day, and as any farmer will tell you, artificial ewe’s milk and colostrum are both expensive. Another consideration when buying in cade lambs is a need for indoor space, buying weaned lambs means they can usually go straight out to grass without any need for shelter as they are being slaughtered before the worst of the British weather. Cade lambs however, will definitely need to be housed and a heat lamp is recommended at least in their first few weeks to help them survive without their mothers to protect and heat them. This can be another inconvenience and expense for some farmers and smallholders, therefore out of the two options I reiterate that this is definitely not the smoothest introduction to keeping sheep.
I had a cade ram lamb, Rupert, in 2017 and another element to bear in mind with raising an orphan lamb is the unavoidable attachment you develop after spending so long mothering them. If you fear you may be susceptible to this I would suggest swapping bottle feeding to using a shepherdess lamb feeder, which is pretty much a bucket with teats on that feeds the lambs without much human interaction.
I hope my advice has been some use and encourages some of you to keep sheep, but be warned… Keeping sheep can become an addiction and I will not be held responsible for any of you that, like me, become a sheep addict!