The following is an excerpt from Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep
by Paula Simmons and Carol Ekarius (Storey Publishing, 2009). The book, now in its fourth edition, is an invaluable resource for beginning and experienced shepherds alike, covering topics such as breed selection, lambing, feeding, housing, pasture maintenance, disease prevention and treatment, and much more. This excerpt is from Chapter 1, “Starting with Sheep.”
Sheep are especially good animals for small-property owners who don’t have the space to raise cattle but want some kind of livestock. Five to seven ewes and their offspring can typically be run on the same amount of land as only one cow and a calf. Sheep can graze lawns, ditches, woodlots and orchards (with full-size trees only — the sheep will eat dwarf trees).
Starting small gives you the opportunity to gain low-cost experience. If you start with fewer sheep than your land will support, you will be able to keep your best ewe lamb each year, for a few years at least. After a while, as your purchased ewes become unproductive, they can be replaced with some of your best lambs.
Although a homesteader may occasionally sell a few lambs or fleece, normally the flock is raised primarily for personal use. Providing your own meat and some fleece for handspinning and for a 4-H project for the kids are among the reasons homesteaders choose to keep a few sheep. Typically, these flocks are small, with usually no more than a dozen ewes and a ram.
Sheep Emotions and Senses
If behavior is thought of as being the way animals react to their environment, then senses are the tools they use to investigate their environment, and emotions are the outward manifestations of this reaction. Let’s talk about emotions first.
Sheep, like other mammals, are capable of displaying a full array of emotions, from anger to happiness to the most common emotion we humans see when dealing with animals: fear. Scientists have discovered that fear memories are stored in a primitive part of the brain. Consequently, these memories stay with an animal for long periods. If an animal has an especially bad fright, for example, upon entering a barn, it will continue to fear entering that building.
As much as fear reactions can be a pain in the neck for shepherds, remember that those reactions are genetically programmed in sheep to ensure their survival. Sheep are prey animals, and the speed at which they have a fear reaction is part of their defense against predators. And make no mistake about it: When sheep see you, they see a predator. With patience and training, however, you can win their trust.
A breed of animals is a group that has been raised to exhibit similar, inheritable traits. Most breeds have a breed association or registry that establishes the standards for the breed and maintains records of “registered” breeding stock. A purebred possesses the distinct characteristics of the breed and is registered (or eligible for registration) with the breed association.
The advantages of purebreds are greater uniformity in appearance and production, and the opportunity for income from the sale of breeding stock, although, in most cases, the additional cost associated with maintaining and marketing purebred animals isn’t offset by the extra income. If you or your children are interested in showing sheep, then purebreds offer a much wider array of show opportunities. The disadvantages are the higher initial expense and the costs of registering lambs, with no better price for wool or meat.
Different breeds were developed in response to market needs and the conditions under which the animals were to be raised. For example, some breeds were raised to flourish in hotter climates and others in cool climates. Some breeds have a higher incidence of multiple births (which is fine if you are able to give them sufficient attention to ensure survival and good growth), and some breeds are able to lamb more than once a year (this is known as “out-of-season” lambing).
Crossbred sheep are those that have blood from one or more breeds in their lineage. Crossbreeds often produce as well as — if not better than — purebreds as a result of a phenomenon known as hybrid vigor. Although purebreds usually exhibit certain desirable traits, inbreeding can also bring out some undesirable traits. When sheep of two different breeds are bred to each other, the most desirable traits of each breed tend to come out, and the less desirable ones don’t. This makes for hardier, more vigorous and more productive offspring — hence the term “hybrid vigor.”
Most commercial flock owners run a crossbred flock for their production animals, though many also maintain smaller, registered flocks. A typical cross in commercial circles is a ewe with one-half Finn and one-half Rambouillet blood. These crossbred ewes are typically bred to a Dorset ram, yielding one-quarter Finn, one-quarter Rambouillet and one-half Dorset lambs.
Native and western ewes. In the areas of the country where sheep are raised most commonly, some sheep are classified as native and some as western, or range, sheep. In reality, these terms have little significance to you as a shepherd, but you may hear people use them from time to time. The terms don’t necessarily refer to a specific breed — or even a specific cross — but they refer to a “type.” Native sheep are raised primarily for meat and are large, prolific and usually black-faced. Western sheep are usually fine-wool sheep or are a cross of fine-wool and long-wool breeds. Fine-wool sheep were often preferred on the western ranges, not for their wool but for their strong flocking instinct.
Reprinted with permission from Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep, published by Storey Publishing, 2009.