The ‘self-shearing’ sheep that can cope with hot summers
WHETHER the long hot summer of 2018 goes down as a one-off heatwave or whether it is revealed to be part of a trend of hotter summers driven by climate change, there is no doubt that for shepherds the need to keep flocks shorn and cool has been more important than ever this year, writes Paul McAvoy of the Wiltshire Horn Sheep Society. If you are fortunate enough to keep one of the self-shedding breeds, you do have an in built advantage, of course. There has been no anxious wait for the shearer to fit in a few sheep, nor has there been any setting-to for the hard graft of DIY shearing, with all the sweat and toil that involves.
The traditional self-shedding breed in England is the Wiltshire Horn sheep and those of us who keep them have grown very used to visitors leaning on the gate and asking “When did you get them sheared then?” (I even had a vet ask me that question one December). They naturally shed their coat very cleanly each spring without any help or intervention from me.
The other question that people always ask is: “Where does it all go?” The simple answer is that I don’t know. I do know that we don’t have fields covered in moulted wool, although there is always a bit on the fence as there is with all sheep. And whenever we find a bird’s nest here, it is always Wiltshire Horn lined. I suspect that the reason it seems to vanish is that it is a short, hairy coat that comes off gradually, rather than in one piece of thick woolly fleece which is how we usually think of wool off a sheep’s back. So there is time for it to disperse naturally and without being a nuisance.
After shedding, the coat does grow again for protection next winter, but through the summer months there is no more need for shearing, crutching, dagging or dipping, plus the risk of flystrike or a ewe with a heavy fleece getting stuck on her back is reduced. And, of course, they stay much cooler in hot weather, although, like any sensible animal, they will help themselves to any available shade during the hottest part of the day.
This ability to shed a coat, reducing the need for maintenance and increased tolerance of warm weather has led to Wiltshire Horn sheep being exported all over the world, typically to countries with hotter climates, such as Australia, New Zealand, Kenya, the Gold Coast, the West Indies, the Bahamas and Zimbabwe, plus to Venezuela, Argentina, Sri Lanka, Ghana and the Persian Gulf. More recently they have found their way to Portugal, Canada and the USA.
However, if hotter summers do become more frequent in the UK, the hot weather tolerance of the Wiltshire Horn could also become more appreciated at home. If you are interested in the potential of this breed, the Wiltshire Horn Sheep Society shows and sales are advertised elsewhere in this magazine and you can find more information on the breed society website at www.wiltshirehorn.org.uk.
Wiltshire Horn sheep naturally shed their coats cleanly each spring without human intervention