Inspect closely and ask questions before handing over the cash for your first sheep, recommends Debbie Kingsley
AFTER many years of sheep keeping, people often ask me if I can remember what it was like to bring home my first sheep. Sometimes I’m tempted to stroke my (imaginary) long grey beard and spin some outrageous tale of long-drawn out considerations, administrative nightmares, transportation shenanigans and emotions churning out of control. In fact, however, it was all quite simple.
I already had experience of handling other people’s sheep and, at the smallholding I run with my husband, Andrew Hubbard, we had good fencing and water in place. We fancied some Jacobs, looked at the local small classified ads (as Facebook and Google didn’t exist back then), made a phone call, borrowed a trailer and brought them home.
The issues started after that. With a proper inspection at home, one of the ‘ewe lambs’ turned out to be a hermaphrodite, so we had our first meat quicker than anticipated.
Lesson 1 Conduct a proper hands-on inspection
Don’t worry if you haven’t yet perfected the technique for turning a sheep on to its bottom. If you need help restraining a sheep, ask the seller for help. Have a good look at its feet. If they are sweaty/stinky/ in poor shape/badly overgrown don’t buy it. If it is a girl that has lambed previously, check the udder. You don’t want to be feeling any hard lumps there.
Look at the teeth. Are they in good order and the right size for the indicated age. You can check online for images of sheep dentition. Does the upper and lower jaw meet nicely or does the sheep have an overshot or undershot jaw. If it displays the latter two, leave it with the seller.
Check under the fleece. Is it very thin, very fat or somewhere in between? Does it have good clear eyes? When it stands, is it low on the pasterns or standing well, with ‘a leg in each corner’? Does it have a dipped back, scrawny backside, or an odd shape, or does it possess a pleasing conformation?
Is it coughing or have a dirty back end — again, leave it behind if it does. These are all things that you can research before your visit and then go through your checklist on site. Take your time, be honest that you are a newbie and be prepared to learn as you go.
Lesson 2 Ask questions Lesson 3 Observe before buying
It is a rare seller who will tell you lies. However, if you don’t ask, they have no responsibility to volunteer information. Ask about the health of the flock, what issues they have regularly or occasionally, what things you should look out for at home and what medication and vaccinations the flock has had and when.
Ask why these particular sheep are for sale and for any pointers they would like to share with you. Also find out what the sheep weigh in anticipation of any future application of medication. Before you seal the deal and put the sheep in the trailer observe them. Do they move freely, showing no signs of lameness? Are they wild and skittish or calm and friendly? You may not be able to bring home sheep that are dog-like in their devotion and trot at your heel (try goats for that), but if they are terrified of you and their handler, or show signs of real stress when you approach, they may not be suitable for a first-time keeper.
Sheep are prey animals, but if they equate you with a wolf you are going to find it hard to manage them. This is not the same as having young, lively animals that are yet to learn adult manners, or a pragmatic acceptance that you aren’t going to hurt them when they are gathered for handling.
Lesson 4 Learn by experience
We all have to start somewhere, so spend time with your new sheep, get stuck in, enjoy them and learn from the experience.
NEXT MONTH: buying your first pigs
When you observe your potential purchases, see if they are wild and skittish or calm and friendly