Wednesday, 8 June 2011

A sheepy educational experience...

I went on a sheep husbandry day recently, which was organised by the Cumbria branch of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST). It was a 'hands on' day, aimed at giving people the chance to practice routine sheep maintenance tasks (of which there are many), under the watchful eye of some experts.

The sheep we worked on were a mixture of Kerry Hills...
Kerry Hill sheep

And mules, which are sheep cross-bred from various breeds...
Sheep in a pen

We trimmed lots of hooves...
Hoof trimming 4

Hoof trimming 2

And experimented with a bit of machinery that I've christened 'the sheep tipping device' to trim hooves without having to manhandle the sheep so much...
Hoof trimming using the sheep tipping device 2

Although our group generally felt that the 'traditional' method of grabbing the sheep and propping it against our legs was less stressful for the sheep, even if it was harder on our backs. After all, it doesn't look much fun inside the sheep tipping device...
Sheep in a sheep tipping device
And they're an expensive investment for someone with only a few sheep. I think I'd buy a galvanised sheep sofa if I found that I struggled to hold my sheep steady for foot trimming etc. Apparently you back the sheep into it and then they lay there quite happily and don't struggle :)

Once we'd finished with feet, the lambs were herded into the main pen...
Here come the lambs 2

And were then subjected to vaccination injections...
Vaccinating lambs

And dosed with wormer, a mineral drench and a spray to deter blow flies...
Worming lambs

One particularly runty little lamb was rescued from the crush and given a bit of TLC...
Runty lamb gets a cuddle 2

After lunch we had a new group of sheep to practice on and this time we looked at condition scoring (checking the muscle on the sheep's back to see if it's too thin, too fat or just right) and we practised the art of dagging, which is the removal of manky poo-covered wool from the back end of the sheep to make it less appealing to blow flies.

Mmm... dagging...
Mmm... dagging

The 'sheep day' was held at Askerton Castle, near Brampton in north Cumbria, which is an organic farm with a variety of rare and native breeds. I was amazed that organically farmed sheep are still subjected to so many routine injections, doses, sprays and drenches. There's certainly a lot to take into account when you keep your own sheep and I learnt a lot, especially from talking to the other people on the course, all of whom already seemed to own some sheep.

One of the best things I took away from the course was a copy of Val Stephenson's Shepherd's Calendar book...
Shepherd's Calendar book

Its only a thin publication but it was written by someone who started out as a novice sheep-keeper and its aimed at other novice sheep-keepers, with an emphasis on keeping a small number of sheep with very high welfare standards, which is exactly what I would like to do when I have some of my own sheep :)

I've learnt more from this little book than I did from reading some of my other, much thicker sheep books and I'd definitely recommend it to anyone else who hopes to keep their own sheep and wants a very thorough and readable introduction to what's involved.

Now all I need to do is find someone who would let me keep some sheep on their land and I might make my dream a reality! :)


  1. Congrats on a very worthy sheepy enterprise! Hope you do get some lovely sheep one day and make your own personal wool xxx

  2. I would have loved to attend a course like this before I started keeping sheep. Luckily I have several proper farmer friends who helped me learn.
    One book I would recommend above all others is the Agnes Winter and Cicely Hill A Manual of Lambing Techniques, absolutely invaluable when you are worried.

  3. Thanks for the book recommendation Joanna! I'll make a note to look out for it. Great that you have lots of proper farmer friends around to ask for advice. There certainly seems a lot to learn, so the more sources of information the better! :)