Sheep Farming in the British Isles
Despite subsidies which favour large-scale mechanised farming, and the adoption of a complex, multi-layered breeding strategy, sheep farming in the British Isles remains the most traditional branch of our agriculture. Throughout the seasons the flocks must be carefully tended by the farmer.
Towards the end of the summer the shepherd makes a careful check on his flock. It is an occasion for sound judgement based on accurate records and years of experience, for sheep are difficult animals to assess. A dense coat of wool disguises their true condition, and the shepherd must learn to handle his stock and feel for any problems through the fleece. He must learn to interpret odd behaviour, and remain alert to the slightest symptom which could betray ill-health. With winter imminent, and the new breeding season about to begin, the flock must be relieved of any old, weak or unpromising animals if it is to remain productive.
Wool and lamb
Productivity, for the average sheep farmer, is measured by lamb output. The wool clip, while a useful bonus, accounts for less than 5% of the income from sheep in the British Isles; most of the rest is derived, directly or indirectly, from the ‘lamb crop’. The term is appropriate, for on many farms the lambs are regarded as an annual harvest to be sold as soon as possible, whereas the breeding flock represents the working capital of the enterprise, fed and maintained for production, and replaced when it wears out.
In mountain and moorland areas the retirement age for a ewe (breeding female) is relatively low. Only the fittest animals can cope with the combination of harsh climate and poor grazing, and even their productivity is unsatisfactory by lowland standards. The sheep are bred for hardiness and self-reliance; the ability to survive a blizzard on the mountain, and raise a lamb under such conditions, is more important than the rate of reproduction. Mountain ewes are noted for their maternal qualities, but not for their lamb output, and while the lowland sheep farmer aims for a 200% lambing average (two lambs raised per ewe), the upland farmer is lucky if he achieves half that from a flock run on the hills.
If the same sheep are brought down into the valleys their performance improves in response to the milder climate and better pasture. The improvement does not justify giving up the cheap grazing of the high tops, but it is sufficient to give a new lease of life to ewes which have been retired from the main flock. As the shepherd checks over his stock, therefore, he gathers together all the ewes which have seen three years on the mountain and packs them off for the good life in the valley, along with the lambs born earlier in the season.
The ewe lambs destined for the main flock are also sent down to better conditions to ensure they develop unchecked by the rigours of a winter in the hills They are kept on the parent farm, or if necessary on rented pasture. Most of the male lambs are fattened up over the winter for market, but the best of them are reared as rams for eventual sale or use in the main flock (taking care to avoid uncontrolled inbreeding).
The mature ewes drafted from the highlands are normally auctioned at the draft ewe sales in the autumn. They fetch a good price, for they have at least two seasons’ lambing ahead of them, and the qualities which sustained them on the hills make them valuable to buyers.
Upgrading the flock
With the proceeds from his draft ewes in his pocket, the hill farmer moves on to the breed association ram sale. The animals for auction here are of the highest quality, carefully selected to perpetuate the best characteristics of the breed. The farmer will have rams of his own in the ring, in the hope of covering the expense of purchasing new blood for the flock. An ambitious farmer will always want to buy better than he sells, however, and the cost of a well-bred ram is justified in the long term by the quality and consequent value of his offspring.
Having bought his rams, the farmer is well-equipped for the mating season, otherwise known as tupping. (Shepherding has its own obscure but ancient language, baffling in its local diversity.) In the hills, tupping starts in November, later than down in the milder lowlands. This is to delay lambing until the worst of the winter is past. The ewes are put on to a better diet to get them into good condition (`flushing’), separated into groups according to the breeding strategy and moved into enclosed fields under the eye of the shepherd.
Enter the rams, one to every 40 or so ewes, each equipped with a marking crayon strapped to his chest. By this means the shepherd can tell which ewes have been covered and by which ram. The information is duly noted down in the record book. When every ewe sports a bright patch of colour on her rump the rams are called off, and the shepherd can settle back to await developments.
The hill farmer wishes to improve the quality of his purebred flock by a careful mating policy, but the lowland buyer of his draft ewes has different aims. The typical mountain ewe, although strong on hardiness, thriftiness and maternal instinct, has a poorer lambing performance and meat conformation (an expression of quantity rather than quality — the highly-regarded Welsh lamb is of mountain origin).
By contrast, there are certain breeds of sheep, derived from the big lowland long-wools which dominated sheep farming before 1800, in which the qualities are reversed: they are well-built, prolific (having a high lambing average) but intolerant of bad climate or poor-quality feed. By a happy accident of genetics the progeny of such a ram mated with a mountain ewe combines the best qualities of both breeds, laced with something of the hybrid vigour which distinguishes all first-crosses. The ewe lambs of this union are in great demand as the ideal breeding stock for the lowland farmer, being self-reliant, strong, economical and prolific.
Come tupping time, therefore, the draft ewes are put, not to a ram of the same breed, but to one of these ‘crossing’ breeds: a Border Leicester, its more refined cousin the Blue-faced Leicester, or a Teeswater. The ewe lambs are sold as Halfbreds, Mules and Mashams respectively, and these are the sheep most likely to be encountered outside the highland regions. They in turn are mated to a big meaty ram, usually one of the ‘down’ breeds developed in the 19th century — a Hampshire Down or a Suffolk — or perhaps a Texel from Holland, to produce the lamb crop. This system, known as stratification, is the basis of the British sheep industry.
A ewe is in lamb for 21 weeks, throughout the worst of the winter. Up in the hills, the shepherd must be alert to changes in the weather, and be ready to distribute extra hay or, if necessary, bring the flock down to the safety of the farmstead. All too often the weather closes in without warning, and the news is full of sheep being fed by helicopter or dug out of snowdrifts.
Some of the bigger farms, encouraged by the high prices offered for early spring lambs under the EEC sheepmeat policy, are providing winter accommodation to promote earlier lambing; in general, however, sheep are expected to winter out. In the uplands, ranging over a wide area, they may find much of their own food. On more intensively farmed land they are fed on hay and silage, and specially grown forage crops such as turnips and kale. As they eat their way across the field they improve its fertility by trampling in a combination of manure and crop remains, leaving the land in good heart for spring-sown cereal crops.
As lambing time approaches the food ration is increased, and the ewes are transferred to a sheltered field or building. Temporary lambing pens built of straw bales are erected, and the shepherd starts his vigil. Most ewes have no difficulty, but he must be on hand to help if required, and he gets little sleep. Twins are common, and triplets not infrequent, particularly among the lowland flocks. There are also losses, and a good deal of fostering is practised.
A lamb relies on its mother’s milk for two or three weeks, and hybrid ewes are bred to produce plenty of milk off the spring grass. After ten days the lambs begin to nibble at the grass themselves, and lowland farmers may employ a system of ‘creep grazing’. The lambs are allowed on to clean, new grass through small holes or ‘creeps’ in the fence; in due course the ewes are let in to finish up the grass, and the lambs are given access through creeps to the next ungrazed field. The technique ensures that the lambs get the pick of the spring grass without being separated from their milk supply, which is essential in their early life.
As the weather warms up, the mature sheep are gathered for shearing, and at the age of three to four months the lambs sired by the Down rams in the lowlands are normally sufficiently well-grown to send to market as ‘fat lamb’. This is a misleading term, for despite their size they are very lean, and the source of most of the prime lamb in the shops. Any lambs not sold are weaned at four months, and the ewes are put on to poorer grass to cut off their milk supply. The lowland farmer will try to get his lambs away as soon as possible, but if the market is favourable he may decide to fatten them up over the winter on grass and forage crops, and sell them in February.
In September or early October the flock is dipped as a precaution against sheep scab, a notifiable skin disease caused by mites which live at the roots of the wool. The dipping mix is contained in a pit or tank with a sheer drop at one end and steps at the other. One by one the sheep are heaved, struggling, over the edge; as they swim for the steps they are pushed under by a man with a pole, to ensure thorough penetration of the wool. It is a strenuous business, and the men often finish up as wet as the sheep.
Dipping is the last big job before the new season, and the gathering of the flock offers a fine opportunity to check the sheep and decide their fate. After two or three years of daily contact, having assisted at their birth and at their giving birth, the hill shepherd will have made most of his decisions already and decided which sheep he will keep for further breeding and which he should sell as ‘draft ewes’.