Of the 90 or so native British sheep breeds, we have chosen to keep Hebrideans. They are a hardy primitive sheep from the Northern short-tailed group and originated on the island of St Kilda.
Our farm ranges up to over 1000 feet above sea level and in winter can see temperatures plummet and snow drifts many feet deep. The fields are steep and sit just below the moorland line, so have acidic and often wet ground. This makes it difficult to use machinery and there are large buffer zones at the top of slopes and beside the dry stone walls where it isn't possible to mow. As a result the grazing can get thick.
It was essential that we chose a breed that could cope with the conditions here and would graze even the rougher vegetation.
My thoughts on choosing a livestock breed, including sheep, go as follows:
- Make a list of all the breeds that will thrive (or at least survive!) in the conditions (environment, grazing, climate etc) you have.
- Narrow down this list to the breeds that are most suitable for the end product you want (e.g. meat, wool, fleeces, lawnmowers etc).
- Reduce the list to breeds that you can physically manage (e.g. handling to check feet/drench/inject, shear etc) and have the facilities for (e.g. winter housing if needed).
- Go and see the remaining breeds at the shows, speak to their owners about the realities of owning them and get underneath the hype where everything claims to be an easy lamber/immune to foot or fly problems/great mothers/milky/the best meat in the world etc. Prioritise your list for the characteristics that matter most to you.
- Pick one (or more!) of the breeds left on your list based on what you like the most and would enjoy seeing out of the window on a sunny day and will be most willing to trek across a muddy field in the driving wind and rain to check up on.
Our initial list had quite a few breeds that could do well on the farm. We knew from ordering some Hebridean mutton online that they tasted good. They have an attractive fleece (far more interesting than your standard "white sheep") and are smaller and lighter (so easier for us to handle, especially important as we don't have much machinery and jobs like shearing are done manually). Their ability to live out all year round and even lamb outdoors in harsh weather if necessary was essential as we have very limited outbuildings. Ultimately the choice came down to a couple of breeds with some pros and cons for each, but the fifth point was the decider and it hasn't changed - looking out of the window at the flock is always enjoyable (except when none are in sight and panic sets in that they have escaped) and spurs you on even when facing a trek against stinging snow being blown by gale force winds in order to dig out snow drifts piling against the walls so that the sheep don't get buried.
All our flock are birth-notified or registered pedigree with the Hebridean Sheep Society whose work has helped the breed move off the Rare Breed Survival Trust's watchlist.
Our first lambing
Before finally finding the farm and moving here in autumn 2017 we had spent several years searching and using evenings and weekends to acquire knowledge and gain skills that we would need. This included several evenings spent lambing at the local agricultural college and a whole 24 hour lambing shift at Kate Humble's farm in Wales as well as general sheep handling and management courses at both places.
We initially bought six sheep (three ewes that had lambed once before and three shearlings that would be lambing for the first time) from a prize-winning flock in Scotland. The arrangement was that they would be run with a tup (ram) so that when we collected them in mid-December they should all be in-lamb.
After a period of quarantine in the lambing shed which allowed us to get the fencing finished they went out in the field in early January, just in time for some snow! But despite heavier snowfalls during the "Beast from the East" and having to dig out snow drifts to get to the field our little flock was doing well. As the 9th of April (our anticipated date for the start of lambing) approached reality started to hit that we would be lambing by ourselves for the first time very soon.
Following an Easter shearing course away from the farm the ewes were brought in to the lambing shed so that we would be able to keep a close eye on them in the final weeks of pregnancy. Although the sheep and their lambs are hardy enough to get on with things outside in all weathers lambing in the shed meant that we would be sheltered from wind and rain, have good lighting and all our equipment easily to hand, and be able to get across to the house for sleep and sustenance when needed.
Our friendliest shearling, Hildegard, surprised us by lambing three days earlier than anticipated. Luckily we had been alerted that they may be early by the people we bought them from as theirs had also lambed ahead of time. So everything was ready - mothering up pens set up, essential lambing supplies waiting by the door, sleeping bag looked out.
We took it in turns to do the night shift, tucked into a sleeping bag on one of the reclining patio chairs with an alarm set for every 2 hours through the night. Whoever did nights went to bed from around 6am until lunchtime while the other of us took over and did the daytime checks, grabbing a nap in the afternoon as they would then carry on to do that night. Hildegard's tup lamb (named Attenborough) was quickly followed by three more tups and five ewe lambs over the weekend and by the evening of the 9th they had all delivered.
Luckily we had relatively few problems, as would be expected with this breed. One of the first-timer shearlings was struggling to deliver her lamb one lunchtime and after resisting the urge to dive in and intervene we had to check once it was clear she wasn't progressing. But the stuff we had learned on lambing courses worked and we could identify that the lamb had one of its front legs back and wedged in mum's pelvis. What the courses hadn't prepared us for was how much less room there is to manoeuvre inside a Hebridean than a bigger commercial mule. Sorting the leg back was proving difficult and we rang the vet for help. As things turned out we managed to get the leg into the correct position by the time the vet rang back and Hadrea delivered another tup lamb (named Aragorn).
One ewe developed mastitis and needed antibiotic and anti-inflammatory injections for a few days, but her twin lambs seemed to still get plenty of milk as they weren't interested in powdered milk top ups.
By the end of the week the first ewes were ready to go out into the field with their lambs.
They were followed a few days later by the later two sets of twins that needed some more time to put on a bit of weight.
By the end of May it was time to be thinking about shearing. Temperatures were rising and the sheep were already looking hot on the warmer days.
We blade shear our sheep using a pair of extremely sharp and rather fearsome looking hand shears. Blade shearing is quieter than using electric cutters and doesn't require power out in the field. It also leaves more wool on the sheep, which lessens the thermal shock that comes from losing their big insulating coat all at once.
We must have done a good job as our farmer neighbour commented that they were looking good one evening in the local pub. He was especially impressed with how they had turned out when he found out we had hand sheared them ourselves too. Praise indeed!
The flock grows
So our initial flock of six had now grown to fifteen roaming across the field. Unfortunately one lamb died after getting hung up in a section of fencing - even checking the flock several times a day can't prevent every untoward thing from occurring.
As summer progressed our thoughts turned to next year's lambing and our plans to expand the flock further. Serendipitously the suppliers of our first sheep then advertised that they had a further group of shearlings for sale. We had been thinking of adding an additional six ewes but as they had seven available it seemed to be the right thing to take the group and we quickly agreed the purchase.
They were collected in late July and after a quarantine period and check for worms (the faecal egg counts have been zero in all our sheep this year) they went out in the field to join the rest of the flock in August.
Finding a tup
The next job was to find a tup and as summer progressed we started to see adverts for rams for sale. One shearling attracted us - he was from a completely unrelated blood line than our ewes, had done well at a show (which tells you that an expert judge hadn't found any major faults with things like feet and testicles), and wasn't too far away. So a road trip to Shropshire was called for and we came home with Carrcross Sonchus in the trailer.
He settled in well in a pen adjacent to our three wethers although he clearly felt the need to assert his dominance as he broke through the barrier to get into the larger area where they were. After an otherwise trouble-free quarantine they went out in the field together - separated from the ewes by three stock fences and a hedgerow just to be sure he couldn't get to them!
Sponging and tupping
With a small flock and full-time jobs lambing can be difficult. Following our experience of a really compact lambing window we decided to sponge the ewes again this year. Sponges allow you to synchronise the time that the ewes come in to season, which should also therefore synchronise their lambing dates.
So instead of them being distributed randomly over a 17-day (or several 17-day) period they are tighter together and more predictable. This allows us to book leave from work and be around to deal with any issues promptly.
By staggering the removal of the sponges we also made sure we weren't going to overwork the tup meaning he missed some and our lambing would be over several cycles.
When the day finally came for the tup to meet the ewes we managed to catch him and apply raddle paste - which rubs off on the ewes as they are served giving a visual guide to his progress - separate the five ewe lambs and lead the ewes down the track to the field where he was waiting. Over the next three days he seemed to cover all the ewes, apart perhaps from the one we hadn't been able to sponge and the one whose sponge had fallen out, and although he evaded all attempts to capture him to re-apply a different colour raddle that would tell us if he served any again (meaning they had come back into season because they weren't pregnant from the first time) it didn't look like there was any repeat tupping going on, hopefully meaning all thirteen ewes are pregnant.
Now they will need good shepherding care through winter to support them while the lambs grow.