All is quiet on the lambing front. We have had 10 so far and expect more in the coming weeks. I thought I would take this time to answer a few questions that are often asked of me – how I got into sheep, what breed I raise, and what do we do with the sheep.
The sheep were only supposed to be at the house for a couple of days.
Back in spring 2006, I had a friend whose daughter was, let’s say, a bit bratty, and the father was looking for a way to teach her that the world did not, in fact, revolve around her.
My obvious suggestion was animals. Children raised around livestock learn about priorities at an early age. Animals get their breakfast first, cows are milked before Christmas presents can be opened, vacations (if this is even a possibility) are arranged around lambing or pigging or planting or harvesting, and animal needs trump a child’s wants when it comes to a family budget. I don’t think most farm kids complain about this or find it unfair; they know that is how it is, how it has to be. I think most know too how lucky they are to be raised that way, how much they gain from that lifestyle, so a few sacrifices are worth it. I remember saying that I wanted a 4-wheeler or snowmobile like a friend had and being told, “Sure. We’ll just sell your horse.”
“Get her a couple of lambs and put her in 4-H,” I said. “She will learn that someone else comes first. And if it doesn’t work, you can eat them.”
Her dad was on board and purchased twin ewe Southdown lambs from a local farmer, but things were kind of slow in getting a sheep shed put together. He needed just a couple days to finish up a stall for them, so they were going to be housed briefly in my barn. Well, after a brief oh, four months or so, the girl had lost interest, and I had fallen in love. I paid the parents for the lambs and informed them I was keeping the sheep. The girl had named them something like Fluffy and Snowball (psshht, amateur), but they were Annabelle and Beatrice to me. I liked the calmness and friendliness of the Southdown breed, but there are so many sheep breeds out there to try. Breeds fascinate me – how man has selected traits to create these very distinct breeds, whether you are talking about sheep, horses, cows or even dogs. They all started from the same base animal, but breeds within the same species can be vastly different. Some people are totally devoted to one breed and will never be convinced that any other breed could possibly be better (again, it doesn’t matter the species). Me? I wanted to try them all!
I started experimenting with sheep in fall of 2006.
Sheep #3 was Charlotte, a Romney from another local farmer. Romney’s have nice wool and good size for meat. They are also extremely annoying until they have their first lamb, and then they are such good mothers that you forgive everything.
Then there was Dorothy and Emma. I had declared my sheep were to be for wool purposes only. I did not care if you ate lamb, but you were not going to eat mine. (This would change before long). Southdowns were a poor choice for wool sheep, and I started researching other breeds. Shetlands sounded appealing to me – small, lots of color. I found one in Uncle Henry’s (a swap or sell it guide if you’re not familiar) and traveled to Vassalboro to see her. I had already talked to the farmer and learned that she (the sheep, not the farmer) was not fertile. A vet had removed her uterus after a difficult birth. I didn’t care. I wasn’t concerned with breeding at the time. She was black, and I wanted black wool. When I got there, I immediately fell in love with the large Cotswolds also housed there. They had long, curly wool. One pen was full of these small-horse-sized sheep with blue markings on them – they had been marked for culling. And there was Emma (if you haven’t noticed by now, we are going in alphabetical order. Fern and Grace followed, but after that things went awry.). She had blue on her head, her wool hung over her eyes, she had large hanks of wool hanging off her neck, making her look like she had mange or something, but really it is where she had stuck her head through the fence and rubbed off the wool.
Dorothy wasn’t much to look at either. She was of indeterminate age and origin and was nearly wild, but I am a sucker for a ragamuffin – you never know when you’ll fnd that diamond in the rough. Plus, they are cheap, but in this case I got what I paid for.
I believe Mother’s exact words when I pulled in the dooryard with my most recent sheep purchase were something along the lines of, “What the hell is THAT?!” She was referring to Emma – she was homely and HUGE. Her baas were more like camel belches. You could not have picked two sheep who looked any less alike than Emma and Dorothy, but they were best buds. It wasn’t long before I learned why Emma had been culled. When she got pregnant, she went through the complete pregnancy, but when she should have had the lambs, she never had them but absorbed them back into her body. Nature is kind of gross like that sometimes. After I had Emma put down, Dorothy wanted nothing to do with the other sheep. She was a miserable sheep to begin with, which just made her more endearing.
We had moved the sheep across the road by that time, and chickens were living in the old sheep shed. Dorothy, though stoic, was
obviously heartbroken, and we allowed her to roam around the property as she wanted. She was never a sheep to like change, and she attempted to move back into her old home with the chickens. When it was clear she would never be accepted by the chickens, she decied to live in a cupboard. Our sheep barn is a converted house, which is why I will usually refer to it as the sheep HOUSE. The kitchen cupboards are still in there, and while running free, Dorothy did some exploring and found that she could fit in one of the larger, ground-level ones (she wasn’t on the sideboards getting into the upper cupboards if that’s what you were envisioning). When the wind would blow, she would curl up way in the back of the cupboard, and you couldn’t even see her in the darkness.
Lambs are like a box of choc- o -lates.
So, what breed of sheep do you have? When asked this question, I have to take a deep breath, “Well, …”
Of all my original sheep, I only have Beatrice (Dorothy eventually died of old age) and have only kept her for sentimental reasons. I don’t breed her. As I looked into the Southdown sheep, I learned of the Olde English Southdown breed, also known as Babydoll sheep, but I don’t like that name. It makes them sound like they aren’t real sheep, and people started breeding them more for pets. I don’t like calling them miniature sheep either. They are the originals. Southdowns, like many sheep were bred to be bigger over time to produce bigger cuts of meat. The short, stout build suits me and my needs though. They don’t need grain, they are hardy, and they are easy to handle. The thing I do not like is that wool tends to grow over their eyes and you have to keep trimming the wool back for them to see. While their wool is better than the American Southdown, it’s not the best. They also tend to have difficulty lambing. Many people think we should keep the Olde English breed pure, and part of their purpose in breeding the sheep is conservancy of an old breed, but I thought they could be improved upon. Those purists would probably be pulling their hair out at all the breeds I have crossed.
I had fallen in love with Dorothy despite her many faults, and was thinking about crossing the two breeds when I found Fern and Grace. I
have mentioned them before – they were an accidental breeding, and they were Shetland x Olde English Southdown crosses. At the same time and farm in Kentucky, my sister bought a full-blooded Olde English Southdown ram (Dixon – I eventually bought him from her). She also purchased a ewe in Pennsylvania. Jodi was always better about saving her money and could afford the $400-$600 pricetag that comes with “Babydoll” sheep. That fall she bought another ram and two more ewes. I could afford the $100-$200 crosses, and I have found them to be better quality than the full bloods, of which I have kept one ewe (Ceilia). I also kept Dixon until he got too aggressive at age 7 or 8.
Olde English Southdowns are laid back – almost lazy, and Shetlands can be nutty. Combine the two and you get a pretty nice mix, although sometimes one breed shines through more than the other. You also get a stout sheep with a longer wool than a Southdown and a little denser than the Shetland. Southdown meat tends to be sweet, while a Shetland tastes more like venison. I haven’t had another Shetland ewe after Dorothy but have used three different Shetland rams.
I have also added other breeds in, including Corriedale. My favorite sheep are probably a combination of the three – perfect size, perfect wool for Mom to braid her rugs, even better than the Southdown x Shetland, and good mothers. Corriedales are amazing, worry free mothers. They are stern but gentle with other ewes’ lambs, which is important to me. I hate to see a lamb get nailed by someone else’s mother.
My first Corriedale was Sadie. She was a small, old-style Corriedale. She and her adult lamb, a wether (castrated male), were set to become sheep sausage when my cousin told me about them. They hadn’t been sheared for a couple of years because the owners’ shearer had retired, and they hadn’t known who else to call. They were sketchy looking sheep, but I had done a little research about Corriedales and couldn’t pass up a free ewe. When I parted Sadie’s wool to shear her, there were green sprouts growing, but once I got all the wool off, she was the most beautiful sheep – always had a judgmental expression on her face but still beautiful and an amazing mother and well-behaved, good tempered sheep. She was everything I look for in a sheep as I breed for personality as much as anything else. And Hank, her son, served well as a bell wether. He watched over all the girls. When we had the pasture cleared, one of the loggers even commented that Hank would stand there all day, staring him down. I don’t really know how old Sadie was when I got her. A few years later, when I told her previous owner that she had just had lambs, his response was a bug-eyed, “She’s still alive?!”
Corriedales are known for their longevity, and I know she had to be 12 to 13 years or older when she finally did die. During her time here, I bred her with Dixon and got two long, thick-bodied ewe lambs. She had others, but those are the two that I kept. I have bred them with Ceilia’s son – a half Shetland, half Olde English Southdown, and we have several of what we refer to as “Tyddyn Sheep” as they the perfect fit for us.
Just like there are certain breeds of dogs that certain people mesh well with, there are certain breeds of sheep we have found we mesh well with, and ones we do not. We did not mesh well with Romneys, and Charlotte’s line has been stopped. I also tried Oxfords once and Icelandic. And some Dorsets. The only one I liked was Jersey – a colored Dorset type (not full) who is an amazing mother and a pretty friendly sheep. Her wool isn’t stellar, but once we cross her, her lambs tend to have nice wool, or like this year and a couple years ago she had broad, stout ram lambs that are excellent meat sheep. I replaced Dixon with his and Jersey’s son.
A few years ago, I bought five Corriedales, but they were long legged, big-boned things, not like Sadie at all. That same fall, I bought five large Rambouillet ewes. At the time, I was thinking I needed a sheep that would produce market lambs that would grow faster. Because I raise smaller breeds, they mature slowly. I love that I don’t have to feed them grain and they can thrive on a grass and hay diet, but I have to keep the ones I will butcher 18 to 24 months. They taste great, and are meaty for their size, but I started looking at my sheep through others’ eyes. A butcher who had bought some of my lambs wanted bigger chops because they looked better in the case, no matter what they tasted like. Another buyer who was looking to start his own flock was looking for bigger sheep. My argument is that you can’t eat a long leg bone, and pound for pound you are getting more meat off a stout sheep. But everyone has a different opinion about what constitutes a “good looking sheep.”
Rambouillets were said to do well on poor forage, so I thought they would do really well on our good hay, but there was very little I liked about them. They were skittish and their lanky lambs weren’t hardy like my little ones. When I bought the 10 larger sheep (Rambouillet and Corriedales combined), I never thought I would keep them all. I wanted to breed them to Dixon or his sons and keep their ewe lambs and then breed them to another one of my short, broad rams. I was looking ahead a couple of generations, and I have kept the best of the best – four beautiful yearling ewes born in the year of herbs and plants – Elder Berry, Tansy, Dandelion and Willow. I will still have to keep the lambs longer, but they’re tasty and are dual purpose. In Wales, they market lamb as slow-maturing. I’m waiting for that to catch on here and am going to keep raising the sheep I want to raise, not what others want me to raise. That may not be a wise business choice, but that’s why I have a day job.
People put more value on full-blooded sheep, but I find the crosses to be more valuable. I look for the qualities I like in a sheep, not the papers that go with them. Besides, lambing can be so boring with full-bloods or even just a single cross. If you breed Ewe A with Ram A, you’re going to get Lamb A. Or Ewe A and Ram B are going to produce Lamb AB. So predictable. BUT, if you are breeding Ram FJK with Ewe WPL – it’s like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. Although now, we are starting to see a certain style of sheep emerge from our crosses, but that’s exciting too, because that has come to be because of our breeding selections.
One of my best rams now, I don’t even know what his mother Brownie was. She was the product of sheep trading. Her wool was beautiful and a dark chocolate black brown. I am seeing her first grandbabies this year, and they have beautiful color. My feeling is that every sheep breed out there was developed through trial and error, crossing this with that, so nothing is a purebred.
You don’t eat them, do you?
When someone asks me what I do with my sheep, I know they are thinking, “Please don’t say you eat them.” But we eat them. Some of them anyway. But most are used for their wool. Mom braids rugs from the raw wool. We don’t dye it, but even white sheep vary in color from yellow to white to gray and can make some beautiful patterns. This year’s lambing has been so exciting, mostly because of Brownie’s descendants – so much color, and you can already see the long wool of the Shetland’s influence. We have even had a truly brown ewe lamb, a first for us, and her mother is a Corriedale cross, so we have high hopes for her wool.
Fortunately, most of our color has come in the form of ewe lambs this year, and we will keep those. All my “meat mothers” who gave me those strong ewes last year have given me equally gorgeous ram lambs this year, which is what I wanted. I have no less love for one type of sheep or the other. They all have an important purpose, and I am grateful to all of them. I tell myself every year that I will not get attached to the ones I know are destined for the butcher’s, but ram lambs tend to be the friendliest, and they like to be made of and I won’t begrudge them a scratch on the chin. I have had bottle lambs that ended up going on the truck, though I kept some of them longer than I should have just because I couldn’t bare to see them go. I can’t keep every sheep though, they all have a purpose and have to pay their way. If I wanted pets, I would have started a hamster farm.