Ten top tips if you’ve always wanted to keep sheep
Veterinarians Phillipa Page and Kim Hamer have written a manual for the hobbyist farmer to help guide them in solving the everyday problems they encounter while looking after their sheep. Here, Gloucestershire-based Phillipa gives us her top tips…
Keeping sheep can be interesting, rewarding and exciting. Sheep farmers willingly devote their lives to caring for these wonderful animals. While maintaining the countryside as we know it, sheep also produce great products, such as wool for clothes, blankets and insulation, and meat that has high welfare standards, is highly nutritious, healthy and tasty.
More and more people from nonagricultural backgrounds are becoming interested in keeping sheep. Often small parcels of land become available or are purchased with a house. Sheep can be a means of grass control, rearing food or simply adored pets. Whatever their purpose, sheep must be well looked after.
Sheep are a domesticated species, but they are also livestock, which means that they have different characteristics and needs from other pets. As such their care requires different skills and research. It is always satisfying as a vet to visit sheep that belong to wellprepared owners who, as a result, are proud of their happy healthy flock.
TOP 10 TIPS
1 Do your research when you start to think about keeping sheep. Decide whether you want to use them as ‘lawnmowers’ or would like to breed from them? There are many books and resources out there that are full of information. ‘Sheep Keeping’ is an excellent, up to date reference book, written by sheep vets as part of the Professional Smallholder series. This book covers a comprehensive range of topics from nutrition, legal requirements, sheep behavior and veterinary care. 2 Legal requirements. To keep sheep, you will need to register the land with the Animal Health and Plant Agency (APHA) www.gov.uk/ government/collections/guidance-forkeepers-of-sheep-goats-and-pigs. You will then be given a unique holding number and a unique flock number. Due to the ever-changing threats posed by infectious diseases, the location of all livestock must be known to and recorded by the authorities. 3 Choosing a breed. The UK is unique in having a huge number and variety of sheep breeds. Most areas have a ‘native breed’, for example the Cotswold, Kerry hill or Cheviot. Ease of care varies considerably between breeds, so do your research and choose wisely. For example, for pets choose a breed that is amenable to handling. Many of the breed societies have informative websites with contact details of people who are happy to help. 4 How many sheep? Sheep are flock animals, so always keep a minimum of three. Find out how many sheep your land can carry. Remember that the land may not support sheep all year round due to variable weather conditions, so shelter or housing may be required. A general guide is four sheep to the acre but this may reduce if you have ewes with lambs or if the quality of the grazing is poor - speaking to local farmers about this can be helpful. 5 What about food? Sheep are ruminants and as such their diet must consist mainly of forage in the form of grass, hay, haylage or silage. This keeps their digestive system
healthy. Good quality forage means that sheep can survive all year round with little additional feed. Small amounts of feed, fruit or vegetables can be used to keep them tame. Additional sheep feed is often needed if they are pregnant or forage quality is poor. Be prepared to buy extra hay or silage for winter, when the grass stops growing.
Regularly feeling the back fat of individual sheep can inform you of whether more or less feed is needed. Also, thin sheep on good feed may be suffering from disease meaning that veterinary assistance is needed. 6 Shelter and cleanliness. Sheep like to choose their surroundings depending on the weather and activity (eating, sleeping or socialising). Shelter can take the form of a field shelter or shade from trees/bushes. Ensure sheltered areas are clean (of faeces) and dry underfoot. Sheep (like other livestock) should be removed from fields that are entirely under standing water. 7 Find a keen sheep vet. Sheep are stoical creatures and can be the master of disguise when unwell, doing all they can to show no signs of illness. Therefore, ensure that you find a vet who is interested in sheep and can
‘Sheep are flock animals, so always keep a minimum of three’
guide you. Your vet should visit your flock at least once a year to check the health and discuss concerns. This will help you to prevent problems that might cause suffering and require expensive treatment. Also, when problems do occur it helps to already have a good relationship with your vet practice. 8 Moral support! Other local sheep keepers and sheep farmers can be a great source of support, who will share your enthusiasm for your woolly friends. These contacts can help you source feed, equipment and resources, such as shearers and good sheep vets. Your vet practice may be able to help you make these contacts. Building a friendship with a local sheep farmer can be particularly beneficial. Their wealth of experience and skills (which you may need in an emergency) are priceless. 9 Sheep need shearing. This is a MUST! Unshorn sheep are at risk of ‘flystrike’, in which maggots, from eggs laid by flies on dirty or sweaty wool damage the skin causing a severe, extremely painful, life threatening illness (learn the signs for this horrible disease so you can catch and treat it early, don‘t be caught out). Shearing must be done in late spring or early summer, before fly numbers build up.
10. Going on holiday. Sheep need checking daily and sometimes twice a day in summer or bad weather. Make sure that you have someone skilled available to look after your sheep whenever you are away, even if it’s just for a weekend.
Keeping sheep is enjoyable, but preparation is key. Aim to be continually learning from the many resources that are available and have fun!
The UK is unique in having a huge number and variety of sheep breeds
To learn more follow Phillipa on Twitter: @ phillipafarmvet Sheep Keeping, by Phillipa Page and Kim Hamer, is available from www.5mbooks. com, priced at £24.95 each.