Friday, 23 January 2015

Plough Monday

Last Monday was Plough Monday, the traditional start of the agricultural year in England. It's our "back to work after the Christmas holiday" day, which I found hard as I spent my holiday binge-watching Game of Thrones and wasn't ready to part company with my couch just because the calendar said so.

The sheep needed my attention first: Pumpkin the runt had diarrhoea and looked listless. Worms most likely. Being a committed shepherdess, I wanted to get a poo sample and check it for worms so I could dose him with a target-specific wormer. So I stood in the field, sleet coming down, getting cold and wet, coffee going cold, staring at the ass end of my most worthless (economically-speaking) sheep, willing him to hurry up and poo. A watched sheep never poos. Nearly an hour went by and my sample pot remained empty while my coffee cup filled with icy rain.

Being also a practical shepherdess, I am adaptable. I opted for a general purpose wormer and some electrolytes, dosed Pumpkin and decided to monitor his progress for the next few days, and went inside for fresh coffee and dry clothes.

The scanner man is due on Monday, and I hope that 22 of my ewes are in lamb. When we moved from Dorset, we left our lambing shelters behind. With no protection from the winter weather, I had to change to Spring lambing instead of having lambs born in autumn to overwinter. Easily done - you simply put the ram (or tup) in at a different time.

Pre-tupping preparations begin

Into the rollover crate to trim feet, check teeth and teats

Through the foot bath, then stamped with their ear tag number,

This year's crop of lambs is due starting March 25th. Lambing all the ewes will take a few weeks.

Moving a flock of sheep to the border of Wales - where sheep already outnumber people 3 to 1 - is sort of like starting an ice farm in Alaska. Not a genius business plan. We don't have our own land up here (yet) so have to rent available acreage, and we can't secure as much grazing as we owned in Dorset, so I sold 12 of last year's ewe lambs as breeding stock. On the plus side, it was the first time my flock of sheep turned a profit.

Not only did I bring sheep to Wales, I brought the wrong type of sheep. Markets don't like my breed for meat. Again, I am a practical shepherdess so I'm trying an experiment: I borrowed a commercial-breed Charolais ram to put to my ewes this year. He's not a looker in my books, but the ewes were happy to see him -

The ram wears a chalk marker that lets me know which ewes he's covered. 
I numbered the ewes so I can see at a distance which ones are marked and track their due dates better.

This ram is a terminal sire. It means every lamb born from this mating will be sent on for meat, none will be kept for breeding stock. The Charolais genes should square up the lambs and make them suitable for the meat trade here. It doesn't compromise my purebred ewes so I can put them to a Dorset ram next year and expand again, if we gain more acreage.

Normally I wouldn't worry about the meat trade as I butchered my own lambs for direct sale to a customer base. I also had to leave my customer base behind when we moved. Where we live now - an area known as the Welsh Marches - is not as affluent. There are not so many bankers from London with second estates who wish to purchase speciality-bred artisan-butchered hogget. We will try the meat market option this time, and I will work on building a customer base here.

I experimented with a fleece option last year, and sent my best fleece away to a mill in Yorkshire to be cleaned, carded (combed and debris removed), and turned into ready-to-spin fibre. Meh. Turns out Polled Dorset fleeces are OK but do their best work on the backs of the sheep keeping them warm through winter. I will enjoy spinning it and knitting it into a coat / cardigan thing, but it's not a revenue avenue.

Between having sick sheep, wrong sheep, and hungry sheep I was feeling discouraged about my ovine future and my ability to make sheep work as part of our farming life. I was certainly doubting my shepherding skills. I did this often while leaning on a fence staring at the breeding stock I decided to sell. Out of thirteen ewes, I sold twelve; one shearling ewe, number 42, caught my eye. Her overall conformation made me decide to keep her.

On one of my fence-leaning outings, Bill the retired estate shepherd came out to join me - fence-leaning, like yawning, is contagious. Bill is soft-spoken and contemplative, probably from years of practice watching sheep. After a time he nodded his head at a shearling ewe - number 42 - and said "That's a very good ewe there, nice long back." MY sheep. One I'd selected. And he didn't know I was keep any. My judgement coincided with that of a bona fide shepherd: I got the Bill Seal of Approval!

I have just moved the (fingers crossed) pregnant ewes to the field next to our house. As their pregnancies progress and my normally fat ewes get ginormous, they can end up on their backs and suffocate. Having them so close means I can check them very regularly and flip them right side up as necessary.

We may not have enough grazing, but we have convenient grazing.

It's also small pleasure to start my day by putting my wellies on over my pyjamas, grabbing my coat and a cup of coffee, wandering past the kennels to pat the dogs and tell them breakfast is on its way, then crossing the lane and wiggling the gate latch (I must fix that post) into the sheep field, just to be run over by bahhing sheep demanding to know where their sheep nuts are, and what time do I can this? we've been awake for hours.

Well ladies, I have been approved by Bill so you know you're in good hands. Let's get this year of farming started!


El said...

So if you did think about fiber sheep, where would you go...? Could you do both?

Interesting in that what got ME into sheep was our kid's Montessori school had them, and we (husband, actually) got a grant to get a spinning wheel. I took on the Learn To Spin thing (not easy unless someone shows you). And...our sheep were one polled Dorset and one DorsetX who knows what. Chalky wool, kind of yellow-y. Took dyes really well though...! and really workable in the learn-to-spin category.

So now I have Shetlands. Their wool is divine, but unlike you on the milder side of the Atlantic, we've gotta have 'em on hay for 5 months of the year, and that hay gets in their wool, and Shetland wool is really fine wool so cleaning it is a bear. But it's lovely next-to-the-skin stuff if I get all the junk out of it.

I wish you luck in the lambing season ahead. LOVE your updates.

Jennifer Montero said...

El - That's a fascinating way to get into sheep and fibre! You summed up the Poll Dorset fleece. On the plus side, it's springy and felts really well too.

There is a co-op knitting shop in Hay-on-Wye, and there are a few women farmers breeding Shetlands especially for fleece quality who sell from this shop. I've bought some wool and have been knitting hats. It's got great texture, and the natural colours can't be beat. I don't think our Shetland is as fine a wool as yours sound, maybe as these sheep live in the cold Welsh mountains on sparse grazing. The weather is so harsh that this time of year people send their sheep to lowlands "on tack" so there are grazing flocks on every square inch of field around us. How long has it taken you to improve the fleece quality through breeding? Have you used a specific nutritional programme?

Maria said...

Nice to see you posting again - glad to hear you are taking all the changes involved in your move so well.
PS I see you're reading H is for Hawk - I read it last year after I met the author at a local literary festival! I loved it (apart from finding there were perhaps too many references to EH White, but that's personal preference...)

Poppy Cottage said...

Just lost my comment. I didn't realise you were blogging again. Jose is here helping me set up my blog again. Different email, different blog name. I miss you!!! Hope eveything is well. xx

El said...

Hah! No, I remain a staunch hobbyist. I've only got three Shetlands (Knit, Purl and surprise baby Stitch the wether). Shetlands are fairly popular here in SW Michigan, well, as popular as any sheep are, which is "not really." We're mainly fruit farms around here. Can't find a shearer for my life (they laugh when I tell them we've only got 3 head) and so I do it with the kitchen snips. Sigh.

I have heard that some Shetlands are so "unimproved" (hate that term) that they can shed. Not the case with my critters, no guard hairs either. But their yarn is very drapey and rather strong, like socks-strong. One girl's stuff felts, the other does not, and I'm still working through Stitch's lambswool so I am not sure where his fleece will fall. 3 fleece/year is probably enough for me but somehow I always buy 2-3 more at our fiber fest.

Our hay is pretty good, though; we have them on minerals all the time and they get nibbles of the goat chow when we move them between pastures. We use electric fencing and just move 'em around our 5 acres. They are stalwart little beasts, I will give them that :) because it was 8*F last night and they slept outside in the middle of the field. Can't tempt them in a barn ever.

Elizabeth in Philly said...

I think I'll play #42 in the lottery this week...

Jennifer Montero said...

Elizabeth in Philly -According to Douglas Adams number 42 is the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything, as well as being a darn fine-looking sheep. May no 42 bring you luck!