Practical sheep slaughtering
Wool from sheep
Castration & strike of sheep
Summer & autumn
Keeping sheep is very rewarding.
They are gentle creatures, providing
us with playful lambs to watch in the spring, that finest of
fibres, wool, and finally with delicious lamb and mutton. They
also eat grass like lawn-mowers and kindly scatter their droppings
finely all over the field — they are natural muck-spreaders.
Depending on breed, sheep will thrive on thick luscious grassland,
slowly nibbling away their days while remaining happily within
their boundaries, or they will survive on rough moorland with the
wind whistling around their thick fleeces, acknowledging no man-made
boundaries. At least they are quite territorially minded on
the moors and establish their own range.
The first stage in sheep-keeping is to match your available
grazing with a suitable breed. Having chosen a breed, you can go
to a market and bid for some or find a farmer who breeds to sell.
The latter course is definitely preferable.
For a start, you can get a
lot of good advice about sheep by listening to practising farmers.
You can also take a good look at your prospective sheep while
they are carrying out their natural occupation — eating grass. The
sheep you buy will not have suffered the stresses of having gone to
market, been unloaded, penned and reloaded. Also, and this is
very important, they will not have come into contact with a lot of
other sheep (potential bug-carriers).
Farmers Weekly carries advertisements
of sheep for sale as do some local papers. Breed societies
can put you in touch with potential suppliers as well. If you
choose a breed that is not specific to your area, you may have to
travel a fair distance to get your sheep. It is worth remembering
that unless you are providing your own transport, the cost of
transporting the sheep will probably be higher than your own.
Very few castrated males are kept after their first shear as they have no use other than grass mowing or being kept as pets.
For a first exercise in sheep-keeping, it is probably worth buying
ewes that have already lambed at least once. This way at least
one of you has had some experience!
The very first sheep we
bought many years ago had just lambed. We therefore had an easy
introduction, it was a mild Spring and the dear little lambs obligingly
gambolled about as their dams contentedly grazed. It was
almost enough to contradict the opinion of many sheep-owners —
that sheep are just wandering about waiting for an excuse to die.
This sounds a bit odd but in fact sheep do seem to have less will to
live than most other animals. Anyway, our lambs grew well and
the ewes ate their way towards Autumn. We brought in rams and
the cycle started again. We kept on the ewe lambs for breeding and
sold the castrated ram lambs to friends with freezers.
Lamb is the simplest meat to sell.
It is a small carcass compared
to pork or beef and is easily jointed and transported. When the
sheep are big enough you take them to a slaughter-house to be
killed. You then collect them. Some slaughter-houses will joint
and pack for you; they charge for it, of course — some a lot more
If you feel too much of your profit is going in their
charges, it is not difficult to joint and pack yourself. If you let the weight of the meat
'help' you, there is very little 'strong-arm technique' required.
When you produce a lot of lamb the extra profit is considerable.
When the lamb is slaughtered the skin is usually taken as part of
the fee. This is all very well unless you want to cure the skin.
Some slaughter-houses will not let you have your skins back: it is
too difficult for them to differentiate with the numbers they
handle. We keep quite a lot of Jacob sheep and like to have all our
skins so we have to travel a fair distance to a suitable
slaughter-house. In fact, some slaughter-houses will not accept Jacobs at all
so you must check first if you have some ready.
you get the skin back you will also get the head. Never feed this to
a dog: there is a worm that forms a cyst in sheep's heads that if
passed on to dogs is very unpleasant indeed.
Jacobs are such a popular breed for keeping on a small scale that
they deserve a special mention.
They are often advertised for sale
in local papers and Jacob rams are often available for loan during
the breeding season. Some years ago they were in danger of extinction
but now, due mainly to the efforts of the Jacob Sheep
Society, they are our most widely available 'exotic' sheep.
kept Jacobs for ten years and ours have descended down to great,
great . . . grandaughters. We have greatly enjoyed watching the
inherited characteristics pass on. Our first lead sheep was an aged
ewe called Frosty. Her fleece was a most beautiful mixture of soft
greys and browns. Her legs were immaculately striped like football
socks and she held her aristocratic head obstinately high. She was
an expert at removing herself and her flock from wherever you
had put them. She treated electric fencing with utter disdain and
she and her followers cavorted high in the air over it. We never did
the trick of holding her sensitive mouth around the wire so that
she would get a strong shock. Our feelings were governed by a
mixture of sympathy with her and conviction that as she jumped
it clear every time it would make no difference anyway. No doubt
there are many who remember the hills and valleys of Kent echoing
to plaintive cries of 'No, Frosty, no'.
Those days are now gone and
Frosty remains only in our memory. It is quite an anticlimax when
our present flock trots off happily where we send them; there are,
however, still a sprinkling of football socks among the youngsters.
Jacobs are very attractive, give excellent coloured wool, usually
drop twins and provide superb lamb and mutton.
As with most
unusual things, a lot was said against Jacob meat in the early days.
The main complaint concerned the smallness of the joints but it
has to be said that as the bones are particularly light, they carry a
higher proportion of meat than most other breeds and that is after
all what we eat. The meat is absolutely lean and quite delicious;
even Jacob mutton has a fine texture.
We have sold the meat
widely and customers always come back for more. Last year we
ran a Dorset Horn ram with some of our ewes. This has fattened
our lambs and made the joints larger; this increases our profit but
in fact we still prefer the Jacob meat ourselves.
The ewe lambs
from this cross were most attractive — mainly chocolate brown
with a white tail and white face markings. The ram lambs were
somewhat mottled and their curly Dorset horns look quite odd on
the speckled coat. We have run our Jacob rams with white sheep
— mainly Kents. The resulting lambs are black and heavier than
the Jacobs; they seem to inherit the forwardness of the Jacobs and
are more inquisitive than their mothers.
Jacob rams tend to be
very enthusiastic and as they possess considerable jumping powers
they can be a problem. We had a neighbour whose Jacob ram leapt
a vast fence to join some glamorous white ewes one Autumn. The
ram was there all night before he was discovered. We all waited
with baited breath for the following Spring — the neighbour in
fear of a massive paternity suit, the farmer imagining a holiday in
the Bahamas on the proceeds. We built even higher fences around
our rams. Spring came and there was not a single black lamb.
Presumably the Jacob ram had been too exhausted by his leap to
accomplish anything more.
Almost every sheep is clipped by electric shears.
If you intend to
do this yourself, if is definitely worth being shown the technique
by an expert. It is very easy to cut the sheep's skin. Agricultural
Colleges often hold day-courses in sheep-shearing and lambing.
You can also clip using sheep shears; these require strong wrists
and care in use. Skilled users can clip astonishingly quickly with
them. You can also clip with large sharp scissors: this, although
unorthodox, is extremely effective.
Sheep are shorn in the early summer when the wool starts to
lift. When you push some of the fleece away so that you reveal the
skin, you can see a thinner band in the wool just above the skin.
This is where you cut. The fleece should come off in one great
piece to be rolled and tied. If you put the sheep on to clean
concrete for shearing or failing that on to a clean sheet or something
similar, you will keep the fleeces clean. This is especially
important if you are intending to hand-spin the fleece or to sell it
to someone who is. It is always amusing to see the goat-like
creature that emerges from the sheep's fleece. Within a few days
they look fairly normal again, but initially even the sheep move
around somewhat furtively in their new freedom.
The wool is a valuable product. If you have more than four
sheep and intend to sell the wool, you can legally only sell it to
the Wool Marketing Board. Unlike everything else, the price you
will obtain has not altered dramatically in recent times and your
wool will certainly seem undervalued. You can, of course, split the
ownership of the sheep around the family: four for Mother, four
for Father, four for each of the children. Craft shops often buy
good fleeces as, of course, hand-spinners will. It is worth
repeating: wool is valuable. After all, one fleece could produce a
jumper, hat and gloves for each member of a family of four;
unfortunately, when a monetary value is put on the fleece, this
never seems to be reflected.
If you intend to buy or hire a ram, look carefully at his records.
If he is unproven (in his first working year), look at his parents'
records. Make sure he is healthy, of a good build and, if possible,
see that he knows what the job is about.
Putting a ram in with
your flock in November will give you lambs in April. When you
want your lambs depends on two factors: the first concerns
whether you are lambing indoors or out and the second concerns
the usual weather conditions in your area. If you live on top of
a mountain and are not prepared to feed mother and lambs until
Spring really comes it is better to lamb late. If you live in a
delightfully sheltered spot with early Springs, you can lamb very early
and catch the premium lamb market.
Ewes come into season in
the autumn and if not successfully mated, they return every 16-18
days. The ram should run with them for at least six weeks to cover
It makes life a lot easier if the ram wears a raddle.
This is basically a coloured marker tied to his chest that rubs off
on to the ewe when she is served. Changing the colour after a
couple of weeks means that you can follow the progress. When a
ewe is coloured twice it means that she has not held to the first
service. With a few sheep you can work out pretty closely when
the lambs should arrive. With more, the lambing is spread over a
When the grazing falls off, you must supplement the sheep's
roughage with hay.
It is worth feeding the ewes well for this
affects the lambs' growth and birth numbers. Not too well though;
fat animals of any species find giving birth more difficult. A
mineral block should be in the field at all times and some concentrate
is needed. How much depends on the sort of supplement you
choose and the quality of the hay. Sheep tend to eat up fairly
quickly so if you find any food left over in the trough then you
are feeding too much.
We leave our rams running with the flock for most of the
winter. We work on the theory that the rams see dogs and foxes
off. The most docile family dog can turn killer. Dogs in groups
seem to revert to their wolf-like ancestors. Hopefully you will
never come across a sheep that has been mauled by a dog. If you
do you will understand why many farmers shoot dogs on sight
that are roaming in their fields. Dogs do not even have to catch
the sheep to harm them. Sheep are timid and if chased, even if
the dog is only intending to play, they are convinced of an
imminent end. The ewes lose lambs that they are carrying and hurl
themselves into danger. We live near the River Medway and every
year a few sheep meet a watery end trying to escape from dogs.
If you have a suitable building (an airy pole barn is ideal), it is
worth considering inwintering the sheep. Many more farmers are
practising this today, both for the higher lambing percentages and
for the comfort of the shepherd. Your enemy with sheep in confinement
is condensation: sheep like fresh air, not damp air.
have been noticeable rises in birth weights when the ewes have
been sheared on coming in. There is the added benefit that your
land gets a total rest through the Winter and Spring growth will
therefore be more lush. Apart from feeding hay and concentrates,
it may be worth considering feeding silage or hydroponically
grown grass. Sheep can thrive on silage but should be introduced
to it gradually, preferably while they are still grazing the fields.
Hydroponic grass is fantastically popular with housed sheep. The
only problem is not to overfeed them with it or they may scour.
The main aim through the preceding months has been to bring the
ewe to lambing in a fit — not fat — condition, with her lambs
healthy and well grown.
If your ewes have not been inwintered,
they should come in now. It is certainly worth spending time and
effort to provide yourself with a building to lamb in. Even a
temporary shelter of straw bales close to the house makes a great
difference. If you ever have to attend to a ewe which is lambing in
an exposed field in the early hours of the morning, with the wind
howling and the hurricane lamp flickering, you will recognise the
appeal of lambing indoors. If your vet has to accompany you on
your cold mission, he will certainly add weight to the cause.
To get the most live lambs — and that is what it is all about —
you want to be in pretty constant attendance. If the ewe drops her
lambs cleanly and enthusiastically licks them dry, all you have to
do is watch to see that the lambs suckle. If the ewe struggles for a
while and is in obvious discomfort then call the vet, unless you
have had a lot of experience in lambing yourself. Twin lambs can
get tangled up inside the ewe, a lamb's head can get jammed backwards
— all kinds of difficulties can prevent the ewe from an
unaided delivery. Putting a hand into the ewe to help is only
successful if you can identify what you have hold of and this is
astonishingly difficult. When the vet helps he generally gives the
ewe an antibiotic in case an infection sets in. Sometimes the lambs
that arrive are very dopey and if the mother does not lick them
hard enough you must take all the mucus from around the lamb's
nose and face. A good rub with a rough towel is often enough to
get the little one going. When a lamb is really cold and not reacting,
the most effective life-saving operation is to warm it up. For
years the traditional way to do this has been to pop it in front of
the fire or in the cool oven of the Aga — with the door open! We
have revived all sorts of apparently hopeless creatures this way.
There are now quite a few gadgets available without resorting to
the kitchen: most work on a kind of boxed-in hairdrier theory.
It is worth checking before lambing that the lambs will have
good access to the milk.
Long straggly wool near the udder should
be clipped away or lambs may suck on this instead of continuing
to look for the real thing. A lamb that is slow in going for milk
will receive encouraging butts in its bottom from an experienced
ewe; if your ewe is not bothering, pat the lamb's rear yourself.
Once a lamb is going well on the teat that should be the end of
problems. A lamb that for some reason is removed totally from its
mother must still have colostrum (the first milk). It is perfectly
satisfactory to give it some from another newly lambed ewe. In
fact, it freezes quite well so you can have a stock on hand. You
can tell colostrum by its appearance: it is thick and yellow.
Normal sheep's milk looks pretty much like cow's milk. The
colostrum contains essential antibodies for the lamb's protection
and lambs that do not receive ir are much more liable to infection.
Once a lamb has been totally removed from its mother you either
have to persuade another ewe to be Mum or do it yourself. The
main cause of rejection from a new ewe will be smell. Sometimes
you can confuse the ewe by spraying perfume over her face and
then over the lamb. We have a friend who practises this method
using overwhelming wafts of Chanel No. 5. Whatever the vet
thinks when he visits he does not say. Neither does he say if his
wife believes why he smells so exotic!
When you have tried all the tricks and are still faced with a
hungry lamb, you must resort to the bottle. Feeding lambs is a
delightful pastime unless you have other things that must be done.
Every year we have to fight our daughter who would happily feed
dozens of them. To start with, a baby's bottle is big enough — just
do not give it back to the baby! Soon you will need something
bigger. Teats and substitute milk are available from some agricultural
merchants and Boots' Farm Sales. Lambs will thrive on goat's
milk but it is not advisable to let them suckle directly as their
natural butting at the udder can damage the goat's large milk
vessel. Many bottle-fed lambs go on to become family pets. They
will follow you around even when they are fully grown. This is
quite satisfactory with ewes; it is not so acceptable with rams.
Bottle-fed ram lambs should be destined for the freezer. They are
too casual with you and can be dangerous when fully grown. Even
those breeds without horns can deliver a hefty blow and with
horns, the possibilities are endless.
To castrate ram lambs and to dock the tails of lowland lambs,
the most usual method is to use very tight heavyweight elastic
These bands and the applicator come from agricultural
suppliers. It is advisable to dock the tails of sheep that will feed on
good pasture as it prevents the area around the tail from becoming
clogged with droppings that are soft from the rich grazing. If this
area is dirty, it attracts flies to lay their eggs. These hatch into
maggots which start eating the sheep. This revolting occurrence is
referred to as an attack of strike. If you ever see it you will spend
a lot of your sheep-keeping life trying to avoid it. It is very
In Summer lambs grow at an astonishing rate.
The ewes are
grazing their way on to another year of production. Wool is shorn
and sold. The continuous movement of sheep around the holding
is practised as in the 'sheep health' section to prevent a build-up
3 ewes with two lambs each: best seeds pasture — 1 acre.
2 ewes with three lambs between them: normal pasture — 1 acre.
1 ewe with one lamb: good hill grass — 1 acre.
1 ewe with one lamb: poor mountain — 5 to 10 acres.
All the above stocking rates assume reasonable weather. In a very
dry year the sheep may need more grass. There should always be a
mineral lick available.
In late Summer or Autumn fat lambs should be sold as soon as they are ready. Cull ewes
(unproductive, barren ones) should be sold as mutton while they
are still fat from the summer grass. Dipping should be carried out.
Now the whole year's cycle starts again.
Please see milking sheep
Sheep's milk is regaining the popularity
it once had: many of the cheeses we eat today made from
cow's milk were originally produced from the milk of sheep. This
is often referred to as the third profit from sheep-keeping.
An all-important aspect of sheep management is to know your
animals and to be able to recognise when problems occur.
a sheep will breathe at the rate of 15-20 respirations per minute.
Lambs will breathe more rapidly as will ruminating animals.
However, any marked increase in the rate or ragged breathing is
usually an indication of trouble. The normal pulse rate is four
times the respiratory rate. The easiest place to find a pulse on a
sheep is half way down the inside of a rear leg. The normal temperature
for a sheep is 103-105° F. Young animals have slightly
higher temperatures as do animals which have been exercising. A
raised temperature is often accompanied by a fever. A low temperature
can occur when an animal is haemorrhaging.
Faeces and urine are good indicators of a sheep's state of health.
Any change of colour or smell that is not caused by a change in
feeding should be suspected as the sign of a problem. Young grass
often causes sheep to scour, usually this can be cured by feeding
The initial requirement of a lamb is colostrum, this gives the
lamb natural immunity to many diseases. If a ewe is vaccinated
against dysentry she will pass immunity to the lamb via her milk
for several weeks. From this early age the lamb is subject to attack
from worms it eats from the grass. Worm eggs will last for a long
time on grazed fields, to be quite safe fields should be rested for
six-month periods, this of course is not always possible but at least
some rotation should be practised to break the pattern of sheep
eating worm eggs, worms forming inside the sheep or more eggs
passing out in droppings. Sheep should be wormed regularly, how
often depends on the system you choose. The simplest is to add
granules of wormer to a feed of grain, the problem here is that
the weaker sheep eat less of the grain and may not receive the
An injector gun is very effective. A pouch filled
with liquid wormer is attached to the shepherd and holding the
gun, western style, you can effectively dose a lot of sheep in a
short time. It has been known for the shepherd to worm himself
in this operation — the needle is unpleasantly large but there do
not seem to be any after effects! There are some diseases that
occur regularly in specific areas, so it is worth asking your vet if
there are any specific precautions you should take in your area.
Dipping is generally compulsory now. The choices at dipping
start with whether you intend to do it yourself or have it done for
There are contractors who will arrive at your flock and do
the whole thing for you. In our area you have to have at least 60
sheep to make this an economic operation; of course you can
always gather a few owners together if you cannot make up that
Sometimes local farmers will let you take your
sheep to be dipped along with theirs in a fixed dipping setup.
Otherwise you must look to your own resources. A fibreglass dip
tank with an organised run makes the whole affair move with
clockwork precision. Putting the sheep one after another by hand
into a tank is heavy work.
From experience we would point out
that getting the wet sheep out of the tank requires superhuman
effort. The sheep must be totally immersed but they must not be
overstressed. Quite often it is a useful thing to have at least one
more pair of hands than you expect to need at a time like this.
Sheep also require maintenance of their feet and tail areas. The
feet must be carefully trimmed and kept in good condition to
avoid foot rot.
The area around the tail should be kept trimmed
and clean from wet droppings or you may find yourself with an
attack of strike. Flies lay eggs in the matted wool, these hatch and
the maggots start to eat the sheep. It sounds revolting and is.
Prevention is far better than cure.