Sunday, 22 May 2011

The Stork's visit

Ten buff orpington chicks hatched in the incubator. I fostered 2 under the pekin hen -

And 8 chicks under a buff hen -

It seems an unfair division, but it's a size issue. The buff has more junk in her feathery trunk, good for keeping chicks warm. Both broods are thriving.

The stork had a delivery for me too -

Five orphan lambs, three girls and two boys. The ewe lambs (big ears) are mule x Texel, a commercial meat breed who will join my flock of Dorsets. The rams (black noses) are Charolais x, and will live in my freezer eventually. For now, I'm caught up in the cute factor.


The stork should be visiting us again sometime in September, if these coloured bottoms are any indication -

There were four green bottoms (and, somewhat disturbing, one green forehead) before I changed the raddle harness crayon. The ewes cycle every seventeen days, so changing the colour lets me know which were covered earliest, and helps me work out more accurate due dates.

There is one very red bottom already, and two yet to be covered properly. When every sheep looks like a christmas ornament, the ram can go back home for a well-deserved rest.

Monday, 16 May 2011

The Blue Seal Club

For the past two seasons I've had to get a contract shearer in to shear my small flock of sheep, because I don't have the skills or machinery required. What I have got is a can-do attitude and access to the Internet, where I found the British Wool Marketing Board website. The BWMB sponsors shearing courses and if you're a farmer (the government says we qualify) the cost is minimal. I had visions of shearing my own sheep this time next year.

Two days on a course has corrected my vision.

This was not a shearing course for hobby farmers with backyard flocks - a group I'm firmly a member of. The course was set up to train the would-be professional shearer. To pass this first level and earn my Blue Seal, I had to prove I could set up and maintain the equipment, and shear to a memorised pattern of cuts called the Bowen technique:

courtesy of 

Along with seven other students, I set about learning a complicated dance of arm movements and foot placement with an unwilling partner that wriggled, kicked, and pooped on me. All while wielding a set of sharp oscillating blades. The aim was to get the wool off efficiently, in saleable condition, leaving you and the sheep with as few bleeding cuts as possible. 

We practiced on a commercial flock of Romneys, a large breed with a heavy fleece. The staple length is phenomenal. Compare a length of fiber from Romney sheep with my own Dorset's -

Dorset (l) and Romney (r)

The farm has a purpose-built shearing area with 4 stations - 

The dogs run sheep into holding pens behind each station -

hardworking Huntaway x Kelpie sheep dogs - suitable for big flocks and long work days

The shearer catches her sheep, drags it out through the pen door, shears it -

then pokes it into a pop hole with a slide, where it drops down under the pens and ends up back in the yard. Our group finished these ewes the first day -

And bagged this much wool, to be graded and sold -

Minus the two fleeces I was given for hand spinning!

A good contract shearer can shear up to 300 sheep in a day. How many did I manage to shear the first day? Five. Five sheep. I am sixty times slower than a commercial shearer. I wasn't much quicker the second day, but I sheared nine and my technique improved. I remembered most of the dance steps.

And terms. There's a whole language involved in shearing. Hand pieces, cutters, combs. Elbows, heels. Worm drives and pin drives. "Firing a blow" means taking one pass with your clippers over the sheep. The fewer blows you use to "clean a sheep" (remove the wool), the quicker you are. Ten extra blows per sheep x 300 sheep per day = 3,000 unnecessary and tiring arm movements. Multiplied by a shearing season = a limited career as a shearer, or at the very least an operation to repair the tendon in your wrist.

There is a uniform that comes with the job too: reinforced trousers able to withstand punishment from hooves and horns, and special moccasins -

I looked like a Middle-earth Hobbit shearer. By the end of the day, I smelled like it too. I didn't have the trousers so I had to make do with jeans, old ones I'd repaired by patching the crotch and knees with an old t-shirt and Copydex glue (Tremendously successful! Email me for details.)

All the students were struggling with their own shortcomings: some had problems remembering the foot placement, others couldn't hold the sheep securely. I had to concentrate on keeping my cutting edge on the sheep to prevent second cuts. My neighbor was just the opposite. He cut too deeply, and twice I saw blood squirt out of his sheep. At one point there was so much blood that I wasn't sure if he was shearing it or sacrificing it to his god.

Because it's a commercial farm, we got experience with a variety of sheep: plain (i.e. thin) ones, fat ones, young ones, ones with scabs and injuries. When taking a break between sheep, I got a chance to stitch up a cut (my neighbor's "squirter"), using dental floss and a curved needle. I learned how to invert a prolapse and stitch that up too.

The tutor taught me another method of catching a sheep with minimal effort, and how to tie the legs to the head to immobilise a sheep if, for example, you're out in a field and need to stitch in a prolapse without a second pair of hands. It was a valuable lesson in general and emergency sheep care. You can't over value the gift of someone else's years of experience.

My own two-day experience taught me that I could shear my own flock over a period of a couple days if I invested in the machine. More importantly, it taught me that I don't want to. I will continue to get a contract shearer in, but I'll do a few alongside him, enough to enjoy the process. 

I earned my Blue Seal badge. And I'm going to take the course again next year, to improve on my knowledge. I might even go for the Bronze Seal. But if you want my help shearing your flock, I think I'm washing my hair that day.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Mike & the Princess

I blogged recently about our visit from Princess Anne and thought I would share the photos of Mike meeting the Princess Royal -

Mike enjoyed their brief chat about hunting and shooting, as she is a keen sporting lady.

I'm on a sheep shearing course this weekend, and promise to share what I learn with any would-be DIY sheep shearers. Lesson one: Are you crazy?!? Get a contractor in to shear them.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Conjugal Rites

I didn't get an invite to the royal wedding. Perhaps it got lost in the mail. Maybe a corgi ate it. It was probably a blessing as all the hat shops have been sold out for months, and I have sheep jobs to get on with. The grass is good, the lambs have been weaned and the ewes have been sheared. It was time to get the ram.

Meet L815 -

He's on loan to me and my flock for the next six weeks. He's a young ram, as yet unproven. To make sure he's at least trying to cover the ewes, I decided to fit him with a raddle harness.

Working out which buckle goes in which hole

Mr. Baker helped me fit it. It went on a lot tighter than I would have thought. Mr. Baker reminded me that if the ram's doing his job with the requisite amount of enthusiasm, the weight will drop off him. So we tightened all the buckles, and put a green chalk in the raddle.

Checking the position of the chalk, to ensure it's not interfering with his breathing or rubbing on the breastbone

I also bought another ewe as I can't make the annual sale next Tuesday (pheasant duties). Meet N1125-

Polled Dorset ewes are not pretty. They look even more coarse and ignoble with their wool off. More Anne of Cleves than Kate Middleton. Perhaps the ram will see it differently.

I admit I was slightly apprehensive about handling a ram. This animal has an armor-plated skull and the testosterone levels of a sailor on shore leave. I just need to keep my wits about me while he's part of the flock.

I unloaded him into the field with "his" ewes. The ladies made straight for him and the new ewe, and everyone had a sniff of everyone else. Both groups commingled easily.

There was no wedding ceremony but the ewes were about to have their honeymoon night. I didn't need the paparazzi to tell me how it went - that's what the raddle harness is for.

There was one ewe with a green bottom this morning: Eudora. Apparently, as far as sheep go, Eudora is easy. I'm sure the others will succumb to Prince L815's charms soon enough.

I weaned the lambs later than usual, and one of the two mothers still had a lot of milk. Besides the worry that she might come into season late, I was concerned that the pressure on her udder was uncomfortable for her, and could lead to mastitis. I caught her up at feeding time, and milked a small amount from her.

I'd never milked a sheep before. It wasn't difficult, except that I had to keep a death grip on her hind leg with my free hand, to prevent her running back to the rest of the flock. I saved the milk in a clean jug to try it for myself. I drink raw milk regularly, and I've tried store bought sheep's milk. How bad could it be?
I tried it in a cup of tea -

It tasted sheepy, but not unpleasant. It doesn't have the same body as cow's milk, and it was slightly sweeter. I think I'll leave the sheep's milk to the lambs. And, if all goes well, the next crop of heirs should be born this September to my seven ewes.

That gives me plenty of time to get a hat for the occasion.