<Intro by Vanessa> Have you ever look longingly at small holding or hobby farm sits and wondered if you have the skills required, perhaps to look after a small flock of sheep?
We enjoyed a hobby farm house sit on the South Downs, in the UK, where as well as the home, Hamish the border terrier, we also looked after 20 sheep – a mix of ewes and month-old lambs.
Lambing season was over and the fields fairly secure, so we were assured that there was little to do except count the ewes and lambs morning and evening, feed them a small amount of grain (for the purposes of said counting), and make sure that they didn’t get brambles or other vegetation caught around their hooves. This could cause them to limp uncomfortably.
We didn’t experience any problems and loved hanging out with and observing these gentle creatures.
If you think you can’t possibly house sit a small flock of sheep because you lack experience with livestock, don’t be put off – with a little bit of knowledge, a small number of ewes and lambs are not difficult to care for.
Hobby farming is, however, very different to caring for a large herd on a “real” farm.
To discover more about what this might entail, we asked Donna Mulvenna, an experienced “farm sitter”, to give us the lowdown on what it’s like to become a temporary shepherdess.
What to do when a farmer picks ewe!
The absolute, non-negotiable motto for every farm sitter is, “Be prepared.”
It was good enough for Franklin, Lincoln, the Scouts movement and the Lion King, all of whom prepared themselves by thinking out and practicing how to act in every situation, so that they were never taken by surprise.
Something you need to know about sheep is that they are NOT survivors.
They are NOT strong or independent, they easily throw in the towel while giving birth, and they are completely directionless.
They are also defenseless and when left to themselves, they will not and cannot last very long. Just about any other domesticated animal will stand a fighting chance in the wild. But not a sheep.
That is why sheep need a shepherd.
However, don’t mistake these traits for being dumb. Sheep aren’t dumb. Trusting would be a better word.
They are also manageable, functional, single-minded, gregarious, cute and easier to care for than horses. You can’t render a horse completely docile by flipping it onto its backside with its legs up in the air!
The challenge with sheep is that where one goes, they all go. Just ask the group of lax shepherds in Turkey who discovered their 1500 sheep had jumped off a cliff in the time it took them to eat their breakfast. Yes, one took the plunge and another 1,499 blindly followed on. True story.
Likewise, if one sheep doesn’t want to go where you direct her, none of the other sheep will go either.
The first lesson in caring for sheep: Food is a great motivator.
If you don’t have a sheepdog, you need a bucket of grain. It makes sheep so much more cooperative, friendlier and less intimidated by new people.
A sheep’s social calendar
When accepting a placement to care for sheep you need to know what skills and level of care will be required during that period. There are basically four seasons in the year of a sheep:
- Pregnancy (Gestation)
Tupping takes place during the autumn. There is a lot of careful planning goes into this season.
Different breeds have different genetics, so farmers use the best ewes and rams they can to deliver fit, healthy offspring. Needless to say, allowing a ram on the outer, to enter the ewes on the inner, is not a good idea.
Allowing a fat ram to enter is an even worse idea as they can be too heavy for some ewes and cause injury.
Ewes are only in season once per year – so unlike other animals that become fertile multiple times a year, there is a short time period for them to fall pregnant.
Generally, after tupping is the time most sheep farmers will try to take a break, but not always. Sometimes, you might find yourself up to your elbows in it during the lambing season.
Ewes are generally docile, however, this is not always the case with a ram, especially during tupping season.
Head butting is a natural behaviour used by rams to get into physical shape for the breeding season and to establish their dominance.
To avoid being at the receiving end of a swift, hard and sometimes lethal head butt, don’t ever let your guard down or pet or scratch rams on the head. Ever!
Some of the things you need to “be prepared” for during tupping season are:
- signs of injury
- clostridial outbreaks
2. Pregnancy (Gestation)
After mating, sheep have a gestation period of around five months. The proper feeding and management of the sheep during this season determines the success and ease of the lambing season.
Providing the ewes have all that they need, most problems can be prevented and all should go well until a few days before the impending birth. Then, they may lie down and stand erratically, paw the ground, or otherwise act out of sync with normal herd patterns.
Some of the things you need to “be prepared” for during gestation season are:
- avoid stressful situations and handling
- pregnancy toxaemia
Experienced ewes mostly deliver their lambs easily and happily, but others, particularly first-time mothers, need a little extra help.
That’s why they need a shepherd. Someone to be on hand all day and all night for when there is a difficult delivery. And there will be.
If you accept a placement during the lambing season you can expect:
- No more than a few hours of shut-eye per night, and rising at the crack of dawn (actually well before it)
- Being confronted with a pen full of confused ewes who don’t know who their babies are
- Permanent iodine stains on your hands, arms, and boots
- A moment when you dive in to help a struggling ewe and find a head and no legs, or a head and only one leg, or a pair of back legs. Unfortunately, not all lambs face the right way on exit
- The frustration of trying to teach lambs that teats are not located under the neck, on the chest, or in fact on the ewe’s legs
The most important thing during lambing is to get the lamb off to a good start. That means ensuring the ewe has quickly dried them off, and that they are up on their feet and attached to their mother’s teat drinking a good dose of colostrum.
However, sheep only have two teats so if there is a third lamb, and there will be, you have the tricky job of adopting the lamb onto another ewe. You can use the wet adoption method where the birthing fluid from a newborn lamb is transferred to the adoptive lamb so the ewe thinks it is her own.
Or you can use the more gruesome dry adoption method of taken the skin from a dead lamb and tying it to the orphan lamb so that the adoptive mother recognizes the scent and takes it as her own.
Healthy lambs nurse often, one or two times per hour during the first few weeks. A lamb that bleats all the time is probably hungry. A healthy lamb stretches when it rises and tends to sleep 8 to 12 hours per day beside its mother, not alone.
In a cold climate, lambing will most often take place in a barn. Once there are a lot of happy, exuberant lambs leaping around with full bellies they can be released out into the field with all the other ewes and lambs leaping about.
Some of the things you need to “be prepared” for during lambing season are:
Also, ewes being turned out on to fresh pasture can suffer from grass staggers.
Note: pregnant women or those who may be pregnant should never work with sheep during lambing season.
Ewes baaing, lambs crying, and farmers praying for just five minutes of respite from a noise that never ends. This is the weaning season when the ewes have been separated from the lambs.
You can lower the number of decibels on the farm by ensuring the lambs are eating adequate solid feed before weaning, and that they are accustomed to drinking water.
Weaning generally takes place when lambs are 60 days old, but earlier weaning may take place when lambs are just 30 to 45 days old. On the other hand, some farmers prefer a natural weaning method where lambs stay on pasture with their mothers until they are four to six months old. This greatly decreases the stress of weaning for everyone involved.
During weaning, the ewes should be moved out of sight, and the lambs should stay in the pen where they were raised because they are familiar with the surroundings and know where to find feed and water.
Some of the things you need to “be prepared” for during weaning season are:
- fly strike
When the farmer’s away, the predators come out to play
Have you ever wondered whether sheep fight or flight?
To fight would mean bearing their fangs, showing their claws or raising their spines. Sheep don’t do any of that.
To flee would require just turning tail and outrunning the predator. That’s a good defence mechanism. But no, sheep don’t do that either.
Instead, sheep gather in packs and run around in circles in complete panic while bleating, “Pick someone else!”
Coyotes, bears and wolves in the United States, dingoes and wild dogs in Australia and sheep rustlers in the UK: all these creatures will know the moment the farmer has left the property.
Sheep know they are easy prey for predators. That is why they are supremely vigilant and suspicious. It also explains why they have a herd mentality and need to see other sheep.
Sheep become highly stressed if they’re removed from the rest of the herd.
This is why sheep need a shepherd.
Following instructions to the letter
Farmers are often calm, collected and quiet types, but when they say something it is always for a good reason, even if you are not aware of it at the time. Someone’s farm and livelihood is not the place to learn as you go, so take notes, notes, and more notes.
Clean the water troughs at least once daily:
Fresh clean water is a must for sheep as typically they will drink a couple of gallons of water each day. If there are automatic waterers in place they have to be cleaned of algae at least once a week, and poop, bugs, and debris strained out of them regularly.
If there is any poop in the water, and there will be, the sheep won’t drink it. (See I told you they weren’t dumb).
Remember that water does freeze so during a cold winter’s morning you might find yourself schlepping buckets of warm water to each water tub.
When sheep are in gestation (pregnant) or lactating (producing milk) they need a lot of water, consuming anything up to 4 gallons every day.
Spread the feed from one far end of the trough to the other:
It is important that every ewe has room to move and is not pushed out of her trough space. If you see this happening you might have to put that ewe’s feed quota into a bucket and feed her separately.
Never put feed on the ground where the sheep urinate as this is one of the quickest paths to disease. Adequate nutrition supports fetal growth, especially if there are multiple fetuses involved, support mammary development, ensure a plentiful milk supply, to prevent the occurrence of pregnancy toxemia (ketosis) and to ensure the birth of strong, healthy lambs that aren’t too big or too small.
Lock all the gates
A rural community in the Yorkshire Dales might seem like a safe and trusting place to you, but over 88,000 farm animals were snatched by thieves in the UK during 2014, at a cost of £6.6m to farmers.
Farmers spend decades building up bloodlines and investing in their herd, and then overnight all that can be taken from them.
Hold the bottle at the exact right angle
If a lamb doesn’t receive colostrum from its mother during the first few hours of its life, you’ll be hand milking another ewe that has just given birth, or defrosting a frozen supply of colostrum and feeding the lamb directly from a tube.
Later, holding a bottle at the correct angle means fragile little bellies won’t fill up with air.
During lambing season don’t go anywhere without a can of stock spray
With so many lambs being born on a farm, the only way to keep track of them is with a spray can. New lambs and the ewe are always sprayed with a number for identification purposes.
The date a ram serves a ewe; the allocated number, time and day each lamb is born; any change in an animal’s behaviour; anything suspicious around the farm. If you’re not sure – just play it safe and write it down.
A good farm sitter knows:
- Changes in normal animal behaviour are an early sign of illness or threat.
- Teeth grinding is a common sign of pain in sheep.
- Sheep like routine, so be patient if introducing something new.
- Sheep react negatively to loud noises, yelling, and new obstacles.
- Rough handling when moving, sorting or wool grabbing causes bruising!
- Sheep tend to move in the opposite direction to their handler.
- Sheep are afraid of, and won’t want to move in the dark.
- Sheep have no depth perception, so shadows, dark surfaces, and water are an issue.
- Sheep have good memories. The aim of a good farm sitter is to make sure these memories are as positive as possible.
If you accept a repeat placement on a farm, you want the sheep to say, “I remember ewe,” and to do it without any signs of stress.
Donna Mulvenna has written a book all about her farm sitting adventures – Farm Sitting – How to Travel the World One Farm at a Time. It’s full of lots of relevant information. You’ll be surprised what you can learn about farm sitting and you’ll find lots of tips and advice that will help if you ever decide to house sit on a “hobby farm”.
You can also read her article about how she transitioned from free house sitting to paid farm sitting here