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Sheep farming

Flocks of sheep are made up of the breeding ewes and their lambs.

Rams are kept separate until tupping time and we usually keep three or four of each breed. Lambs are kept in their own flock after they are weaned.

There are two flocks at Shabden Park Farm. The first flock consists of North Country Mules. They have speckled heads and legs and long wool. Mules are a generally hardier breed which are prolific lambers with a naturally good mothering ability. These ewes are put to Suffolk rams and lamb at a traditional time around April, to coincide with the spring growth of grass, producing the Suffolk x Mule breed.
The Suffolk x Mule ewe lambs are retained for breeding and the wethers (or male lambs) are traditionally reared and sold through our Back to Nature Farm Shop.
North Country Mule ewe

The second flock is made up of the Suffolk x Mule ewes which we retain from the spring lambing each year. These have a black head and legs and short wool. These are put to Charollais rams to produce a heavy new season lamb. This flock is housed from early December and lamb mid to late January, where they are kept indoors until such time as there is sufficient grass growth to sustain the flock outside.
The ewes first lamb when they are two years old, and stay on the farm until such time as they naturally lose their teeth, at around eight or nine. Flock mortality is around 3% per year, from various reasons, including dog attacks and illness at lambing time.

We operate a 'closed flock system'. This means we breed our own replacements except for buying in a few North Country Mule ewes to replace the older ones. This gives us a healthier flock, and good biosecurity, minimising the risk of bringing in disease from outside.
The two different breeds are easily distinguishable as you walk or drive through the farm.

Suffolk x Mule ewe


Sheep husbandry
The start of the shepherd's year is the autumn, when the days shorten and the ewes begin their seasons. This is when the ewes are prepared for tupping (introducing the ram). The flock receives their biannual vaccinations and worming, and are crutched (shorn around the tail to avoid flies laying eggs on the dirty wool) and have their feet inspected and treated as necessary. They are then put on the best grass for flushing (improvement in body condition).
The gestation period of a sheep is approximately 147 days or 5 months, so we plan our lambing time and work back to determine when we introduce the rams. As a rough guide, introducing the ram on Bonfire Night, gives us lambs on April Fools Day.

 

Suffolk and Charollais rams

From tupping to lambing, it is essential that the ewes are kept stress-free as they easily absorb the early foetus or abort their lambs later on. Even dogs making the sheep run can cause this to occur. This is why sheepdogs move the flock from a distance and are under a very high degree of control by the shepherd. Sheepdogs are trained on non-breeding sheep for this reason.
As the lambs grow inside the ewes, body condition reduces and they receive silage or hay as the grass deteriorates in quantity and quality with the first frosts. The final six weeks of gestation accounts for 60% of the lamb growth and it is at this time that a high protein concentrate is fed. This is made up of non-GM cereals such as wheat, barley and beans, vitamins and minerals, and soya or sunflower. The ewes are ultrasound-scanned so that those with single lambs, twins and triplets are identified and grouped. These are then fed the correct ration accordingly.
A new mother licks her lamb dry

Products from sheep

The sheep assist in the ongoing restoration of the natural chalk downland in the Shabden valley. Sheep are an excellent grazing animal for conservation as they graze the grass plant at a length which encourages fresh growth and tillering. This allows wildflowers to grow up unhindered as can be seen by the species-rich sward in the valley. Their manure also provides fertility for the natural herbs and grasses. Because of this, they have been known as 'the golden hoof'.
Meat is not the only product which the sheep provide. We shear all the sheep on the farm in May/June and the wool goes to the British Wool Marketing Board. Each sheep produces approximately 1-1.5kg of wool, worth £1 to £1.50. The British Wool Marketing Board grade and sell wool from farms all over the UK. Wool from our sheep probably goes to carpet manufacturers.

 

Grazing lambs


 

One of our in-lamb Suffolk x Mule ewes attacked in 2004

Dogs in the countryside

Many people enjoy exercising their dogs in the countryside, but it is vital that dog owners understand the damage that their pet can do to livestock and wildlife, often unwittingly. Off the lead, dogs can pose a threat to livestock and simply causing in-lamb ewes to run can create problems such as absorption of the foetus and difficulties during lambing such as malpresentations. Uncontrolled dogs amongst livestock can do a large amount of damage in a very short time. In January and March 2004, we experienced two dog attacks on the Suffolk x Mule ewes - one only two weeks before lambing when the ewes were very heavy in-lamb. Not only traumatic to the the ewes themselves, caring for these sheep after an attack is extremely upsetting. A dog attack is costly to the livelihood of a livestock farmer. We estimate that the two dog attacks in 2004, and the repercussions from them, cost around £4000 in treatments, lambing difficulties, poorly and late finishing lambs and difficulties getting the ewes in-lamb again.
Dogs off the lead can cause damage to wildlife, disturbing ground-nesting birds who may not return to the nest and chasing deer. Even friendly, domesticated dogs sniffing around an area are actually exercising their hunting instincts.

As well as being unpleasant, dog faeces can cause infections to other wildlife and to humans, and the problem doesn't go away the longer the faeces is left. Toxocariass can cause blindness, especially in children and dog owners should always clean up after their dogs and dispose of the mess responsibly. It is also important to make sure that dogs are wormed regularly to avoid infecting wildlife and livestock.
It is not acceptable to bring a dog into the countryside to avoid having to clean up after it.

At Shabden Park Farm, we ask that all dogs are kept on a lead at all times to help us maintain the countryside that is so enjoyable to walk through, and to clean up and take away your dog's faeces.


Links

Countryside Code video   Creature Comforts animation advert for the Countryside Code
NSA   National Sheep Association
Taking dogs into the countryside   Countryside Agency advice leaflet in PDF
Naturenet dog law   Summary of laws affecting owners of dogs in the UK
Southwark Council dog fouling page   Informative page on dog fouling and diseases
DEFRA Animal Welfare Control of Dogs   Details of legislation regarding control of, and dangerous dogs

   
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