Sheep keeping is always beset with a range of issues. I will never forget David Roberts, for many years secretary to the Romney Sheep Breeders’ Society, telling me, many years ago, that “there is no limit to the number of sheep that one man can neglect”. To put it into context, this was at a time when the flock size required to justify a full-time shepherd was increasing rapidly year on year. It is something that has remained with me ever since. It has probably tainted my view on the term “easy care” when applied to sheep; some breeds may be more amenable than others and some are the antithesis of ”easy care”, but all sheep have their problems at various points in time. Easy care does, in my view, create the wrong impression, particularly to the novice sheep keeper; sadly, I have seen and still do on occasions see the results of the perception of easy care.
For the novice, the most frequent mistake is the assumption that sheep are stupid. They are far from stupid; sheep are complex characters, with a level of cognitive ability similar to dogs and even some of the primates. The second misconception is that all they need is a bit of grass. In an ideal situation, yes, it would be great if we could do it all off grass and forages, but unfortunately that is not always the case. In a good year, maybe, but in a season like the one we are currently experiencing it is not quite so straightforward.
Sheep, in evolutionary terms, are desert animals; they do thrive and enjoy hot and dry weather, hence the saying “better a roast lamb than a boiled”, but they do need to have adequate feed in front of them, adequate in terms of both quantity and quality. Just because sheep are in a field of grass does not mean they have adequate nutrition. Personally, we have had an unprecedented and disastrous season in terms of grass growth. At the beginning of lambing we were paddling in mud, towards the end we had some very good conditions, with plenty of grass in front of the sheep, but then just when grass growth should really have been taking off we went from flood to drought over a period of a couple of weeks. We probably had two or three weeks of good grass growth.
Our main grazing block is on relatively shallow soils, over a thick layer of ironstone, and as a result we are prone to drying out over the summer and have learnt to manage accordingly. Ordinarily we will try to build up a bit of a grass wedge from the spring flush to help carry us through. The judicious use of the topper to knock off any seed heads that appear keeps the grass just ticking over well into the summer dip in production, which, along with a few molasses blocks, will normally hold the ewe condition until the autumn flush of grass in readiness for tupping.
Sadly the writing was on the wall for this season when we went rapidly from paddling about in mud to just 3mm of rain in the last couple of weeks in March; a reasonably good April kept the grass going long enough to put plenty of milk under the ewes, but a spell of hot and dry weather with only 10mm of rain in May rapidly depleted soil moisture and stopped grass growth. Moving to a rotational paddock system last year did help to make more effective use of available grass and stretch supplies, but there are limits.
We have always used creep feeding strategically; the introduction of some creep feed as grass supplies dwindled did help to take some of the pressure off the ewes and keep lambs moving forward. It was a strategy that certainly paid off this year, with the majority of ewes in at or around body condition score (BCS) 2.5 at weaning, just where they needed to be. All credit to the ewes, some breeds would not have coped as well; the few plainer sorts came as no surprise and were all plain for a reason. Most had already been marked for culling.
I have always been of the view that sheep need to be challenged. It is only then that you can identify the better sorts and move forward, but there are limits on how much of a challenge is acceptable. With the lambs having priority for grass, things began to get very tight for the ewes, eventually reaching the point where we have resorted to sacrificing a couple of paddocks and feeding hay and a bit of hard feed to ewes simply to maintain BCS through to tupping, or until we get a decent drop of rain; in more than 30 years an unprecedented move.
There are still some green shoots appearing. Grass shoots are few and far between and even the deeper-rooting yarrow and plantain are struggling but still seem to be finding a bit of moisture at depth; sacrificing a couple of paddocks has protected these green shoots from being constantly nipped off as soon as they appear, which should help the remaining grazing to recover more readily once we get a decent drop of rain, whenever that will be. With a soil moisture deficit almost 50% greater than the norm for early summer, quite a substantial and sustained period of rain is required to bring us back into some sort of balance.
I was in a Zoom meeting (a real feature of lockdown) a week or so ago and it did pain me rather to hear producers in other parts of the country complaining about rain interrupting their haymaking, shearing etc. It would be good to have the rain to grow the grass to have the haymaking to interrupt; certainly hay and silage yields in the area are significantly reduced, with some producers and contractors reporting crops of 50% to 70% less than they would expect in a normal year.
At least now all the sheep have been sheared it is very much easier to monitor body condition; it is rather too easy to be deceived by a good covering of wool into thinking that all of the sheep “look well”. Certainly with woolly sheep the only way to monitor and manage BCS effectively is by being able to put a hand on the backs of a few sheep from time to time.
With regards to shearing, the wool situation has not improved significantly, to the point where some producers have now resorted to composting or burning (not an easy option) their wool. Others, where they have the capacity, are holding it in store until prices improve. At the same time people around the country are exploring alternative uses and markets for wool. An obvious option is the development of products that exploit the excellent thermal insulation, moisture wicking and other beneficial qualities of wool.
There are a number of companies in the UK that currently produce a range of woollen insulation products, including insulating packaging materials for vaccines, perishable foodstuffs etc, and loft and cavity insulation, but these do tend to be rather more expensive than alternatives such as ‘Rockwool’ and glass fibre insulation.
I suspect that much of the disparity in price is associated with the current economies of scale. Some pump priming funding to encourage up-scaling of production would no doubt make wool insulation far more competitive. With the Government putting significant additional funding into improving the thermal efficiency of homes as part of its “green recovery”, now is an excellent time to be promoting the use of wool, a natural product that runs off grass (well mostly), with a significantly lower Carbon footprint (very low, if regarded as a by-product of lamb production, which it largely is) than all of the alternative materials. With this in mind there is a petition aimed at encouraging the Government to consider supporting the use of wool and wool products as insulation material. All sheep producers ought to be supporting this; any measures that take some of the surplus wool out of the system, even if it is only some of the poorer quality wools, must be of benefit. The petition can be found at https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/british-wool-for-british-insulation How effective it will be is unsure, but It will only take a couple of minutes. Support your industry.