Life with sheep

Before we moved to the Far Side, Robert and I had no experience raising livestock. I gardened and we both enjoyed cooking and shared an interest in food. We visited a winery a number of years before that had sheep grazing in their vineyard. Very pastoral and idyllic. I think that is why Robert thought that sheep and a vineyard were a good idea as a retirement project. We have since discovered that our breed of sheep will actually eat the grapes and grapevines, so they are separated by a fence. Well, we do like wine…

In 2012 we bought three little weaned lambs and started the learning process. We read about sheep and we consulted with the farmer who sold us the lambs regarding their care. Robert made contact with other sheep farmers who could mentor us. We had a little shelter and good pasture. Things went pretty well; the sheep were nice animals and weren’t a lot of work. We didn’t have any predator problems. The meat was delicious. Success! The following year, we bought four little lambs. They were very small, and one died very quickly. They weren’t really ready to be weaned – the farmer just wanted to get rid of his flock – and it was a very hard lesson. Robert also wanted to try wool breeds, so we bought two more lambs. They were sickly – and quickly passed on their parasites to the other lambs. We dewormed them, Robert gave them baths, and everyone recovered. We had the two woolies sheared before processing, but the fleece wasn’t very nice and it was extra overhead. The meat wasn’t any better than the hair breeds. Experiment over.

It wasn’t easy to find weaned lambs, but a nearby farmer was selling their ewes after losing their ram and lambs to a cougar. We kept one of our ram lambs, Gyro, and waited for spring.  Our first lambing experience was another steep learning curve. Most hair sheep can lamb without help. You are more likely to discover newborn lambs in a field or in the barn than be standing beside a labouring ewe when the blessed event occurs. However, you must make sure the lambs are nursing properly, clean up their umbilical cords, check the ewe’s health and keep an eye on them for a few days to make sure everyone is thriving. Every year we have had healthy lambs born, but each year one lamb has failed to thrive or has been rejected by its mom. Death is part of the reality of life, and our losses are small – but we still shed tears over those little lambs.

Sheep have an undeserved reputation for being stupid. They are not. Sheep, like humans, come with all levels of intelligence and different personalities. They are a flock animal, so if one does something stupid the others may follow (hence the reputation). However, most of them learn quickly and can outwit mere humans and their silly gates and fences. We thought a lever-style latch on the feed room door would be a good idea. The sheep figured out pretty quickly how that worked. There is now a round knob on the door. They know that there is power in numbers, so if they see an opening, they will rush at it to force their way through. They will take turns leaning against a wobbly post until they can knock down the fence. They have removed the tap head from the rain barrel, repeatedly removed the tarp from equipment and stretched out fencing wire to get at whatever is on the other side. They watch the house. Any sign of life? Start yelling. A car in the driveway? Start yelling. Five o’clock? Start yelling. They know the sound of the screen door. Humans mean snacks, and they react to every clue.

Some of our sheep are very affectionate, and will approach you for head scratches. Others are skittish, and get jumpy when people are around. If they are annoyed, they stamp their feet. They have individual preferences for food. BoPeep loves kale. Mary likes spinach, peas and chard. Claire isn’t fond of grain. Gyro enjoys red elder leaves. If you give them hay that is not up to their exacting standards you will later find it strewn all over the barn.

I sometimes think it is possible to have a garden, and it is possible to have sheep, but it is not possible to have both. Garden raids do a lot of damage and are very discouraging. On other days, I feel very satisfied in tossing them weeds and trimmings from the garden while they cluster at the gate to watch me work.

Sheep are a long-term investment. They can live up to 20 years, though 10 – 12 is the norm. Most farmers stop breeding sheep after they are about 7, so that is a lot of years of having an unproductive pet with an appetite. However, they make us laugh, run to the gate to greet us, get us up in the morning and keep us up at night during lambing. We cuddle the lambs, spoil their moms with treats, put up with Gyro’s cantankerous behaviour and keep mending gates and fences. The meat is delicious, but the biggest reward is caring for the sheep and watching them flourish.