Sheep featured on a green farm pasture

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Smallholder advice – how to keep sheep

Become a bonafide sheep keeper with these tips

Sheep are great at keeping grass under control with minimal disturbance, can add lamb or milk to your fridge, and produce wool and fleece.

But is your smallholding suitable for keeping a small flock, and how much work will it entail?

We take a look at what you need to know about running a small flock on your smallholding.

Environment

The number of sheep you keep, and the breed you choose, depends on the quality of your land, your location and your reason for introducing them. You should look at keeping about three to four sheep per acre and up to six on fertile grassland.

Many plants are poisonous to sheep, including ragwort, St John’s Wort, rhododendron, yew, hemlock, bracken, acorns and oak leaves, so ensure none of these are on your land or that any plants on your land are safe for the sheep to be around.

Sheep should not be kept indoors and housing is unnecessary unless you are planning on lambing or have adverse winter weather with limited grazing. Sheep can lamb outdoors but having some shelter can increase the life expectancy of lambs.

Sheep are renowned for escaping, so it is vital to have secure fencing, even along hedgerows. It is important to check them regularly as they become stressed if they get stuck and can die quickly.

Some breeds will shed their winter fleece but others will require shearing in the spring. There are plenty of shearers around, or you could learn to do it yourself.

Feeding

Sheep graze year-round but will likely need hay, silage or haylage during winter. However, they should not require concentrate feed apart from pre and post lambing.

They need constant access to clean, fresh water and may also need mineral supplements if the grass they graze on is deficient in those minerals.

Legal requirements

Anyone keeping sheep is required to apply for a holding number from the Rural Payments Agency or Rural Payments and Inspection Department in Scotland. Those wishing to breed sheep must also have a flock number.

Any sheep born after 1 January 2010 must have a yellow electronic identification tag (EID) in one ear and a matching conventional tag or tattoo in the other, which you can usually do yourself.

Sheep owners and keepers must follow the Government’s licence conditions when moving sheep. Also, if sheep are transported further than 40 miles, a certificate of competency for the transporter is necessary.

The Government says that you don’t need a licence to slaughter animals at home, provided:

  • you own the animal and kill it on your property
  • it's for you or your immediate family, who live on your property, to eat.

Failure to follow any of the rules set out in the Government guidelines could lead to prosecution.

Did you know? Sheep have poor eyesight but excellent hearing.

Common ailments

Sheep are susceptible to a number of health problems so it is advisable to have a health plan in place to deal with biosecurity, disease prevention and managing sick or injured sheep. Sheep will need worming regularly and rotational grazing can help reduce the burden.

They can be susceptible to footrot; a bacterial infection in the hoof. It can be treated by carefully trimming the afflicted area and using an antibiotic spray.  Sheep should also have their feet trimmed whenever hooves are overgrown – speak to your vet for advice. Also, keep an eye on teeth as older sheep can lose their condition.

A medicine book should be kept to record all medical interventions.