As some of you may know, I have a proclivity for raising Scottish breeds of livestock. From the large Clydesdale draft horse to the Belted Galloway cattle to the Scots Grey chicken, breeds of livestock from Scotland and the surrounding isles have always brought about a great amount of curiosity and interest in this Scottish descendant. This past year, I decided to pursue an interest in a Scottish breed of sheep, Shetland sheep.
In recent years, handspinning and knitting have seen a resurgence in our geographical area as people begin to return to simpler ways and reconceptualize the meaning of the term local. Market gardening and selling from farm gate affords a farmer ample opportunity to talk with customers and friends of the farm. While restocking my roadside stand this past Summer, several people approached me and shared that they would really like to be able to purchase local wool for handspinning, yarn for knitting, as well as lamb and mutton for their freezers. All we had to do was find some pedigreed sheep to start a flock and we could begin to provide for a growing demand in our area.
After spending several months researching breeds I landed upon a smaller statured, primitive sheep breed originating from the Shetland Isles in Scotland. Scottish Blackface sheep seemed to be in short supply in the Maritime provinces of Canada so they were out of the question, but after browsing the NASSA website (North American Shetland Sheep Association) and sending requests to join several Shetland Sheep Facebook groups I felt confident that we would find breeding stock. The search for a ram and three ewes was on.
In recent years, the last couple decades really, the breed has seen a resurgence in popularity with small-scale flock keepers due in large part to the breed’s primitive appearance (shorter tails and smaller features). their generally calm and docile temperament, and their maternal instincts. Shetland sheep have 11 different colorings and 30 different markings. This variety of colors and patterns make the fleeces from Shetlands highly desirable for handspinners and avid knitters. When considering Shetlands as a food source, their meat is considered to be very flavorful and high quality.
The Ewes – The Three Ladies
Finding our first three ewes to start a flock took us to Deerfield, NB, which is approximately 3 hours southwest of our farm in Northern, NB. A long time shepherdess, Dr. Cathy Gallivan, was looking to part with some of her ewe lambs as she had decided to only keep a small flock of retired ewes. It was a treat to meet my first sheep farmer and talk farming with her at her family’s homestead. I spent a good deal of time talking with Dr. Gallivan about her experiences with equine livestock in an effort to grab a few bits of information to mollify any lingering worries about raising sheep that were still perturbing my mind.
I’ve learned over the years, from stories and experiences visiting farms, that you should always allocate time towards the development of conversation between farmers. We can’t treat the purchase of livestock like convenience store shopping. Although you can flirt with the possibility of wearing out your welcome, gauging the farmer’s willingness to let go of their livestock will signal when it is time to leave. Speaking from experience, farmers can grow deeply connected to their livestock and experience difficulty letting go of their animals, especially those animals who have journeyed alongside them. Taking time to develop trust before the transaction is finalized can reduce any sitting tension or anxiety on both sides of the transaction. It gives you time to inspect the animals, observe their behaviors, and at the very least allow them the chance to get used to your voice.
We loaded the 3 ewe lambs into the back of my Honda CR-V. Don’t worry, I flipped the seat up, installed a divider to keep the ewe lambs from jumping shotgun in the front seat, and laid a tarp down to catch their raisin nuggets. Pelleted sheep dung is a bad prank waiting to happen, let me tell you. The three sisters stood tensely for the first hour of the return trip, eye balling me while I coursed through the meandering back roads to the Trans Canada highway and then Highway 17 and 11 home to Point La Nim, NB. The trip was uneventful, unique and eerily quiet at first, but with the radio on CKNB we pulled into the farm lane just after dark in the beginning of December. In the dark of night, our breeding stock had arrived at MacCurdy Farm.
The breeding window of Shetland sheep is seasonal. Generally, the further the sheep breed originates from the equator the shorter the breeding season. Our ewes arrived at the beginning of December but the search for a ram, and a livestock hauler, took us into the last month of Winter.
In March, after coming to terms on the purchase of a ram from Chassagne Farm in Puslinch, Ontario, our ram finally shipped. Chassagne Farm is home to the lineage of the first Shetland sheep flock introduced to Canada by Col. Dailley. Not to be outdone by the three ewe lambs, the ram received a ceremonial trip in a dog crate in the back of the Honda CR-V. I travelled 2 hours to meet the livestock hauler in St. Leonard, NB where we transferred the ram into the large size dog crate, which my aunt had used for her large sized dog. Travelling alone again the second time around, my wife wisely chose to stay behind with the kids, I had a two hour bonding window with Robbie the ram, which culminated in him ramming the cage door when I greeted him at the back door of the jeep. There was no way Robbie would allow me to open the crate and get him into the livestock barn. However, stubbornness would not prevail. Distraction would win this battle. My sister, home for a visit, waved her hands at the other end of the dog cage, while I snuck my hand at the cage opening to grab a horn. Painless victory! We then proceeded to coax our newest addition to the barn, myself on the curled end, my sister on the raisin pellet end, but were met with resistance like that of a toddler dead set on not going to their room. In the end, Robbie joined Martha, Rosie, and Ruby establishing our first flock on MacCurdy Farm.
Bearing in mind that Shetland sheep, in colder climates such as ours, tend to have a shorter breeding window, I thought the introduction of a ram to the three ladies had a small chance of producing lambs. Only learning later that some shepherds/shepherdesses avoid breeding sexually mature ewe lambs to allow their body condition to develop, I thought no need to rush things. In the absence of any witnessed breeding behavior, the opportunity to have lambs seemed a dismal possibility.
Say what now?
The gestational period, pregnancy term, for ewes lasts 148 days give or take a day or two. If Roberto was successfully able to throw lambs with the three ewe lambs, it would be July 27th before the fruits of labor arrived. On the morning of July 23, 2017. I received a phone call from my father, “Justin!” Busy preparing breakfast, I responded, “Yes?” There was a pause on the phone, “You might want to come up here,” he spoke, the excitement pouring through the phone. “Why? What’s up?” I curiously inquired. “There’s a baby lamb in the pen, get up here!” dad said, and just like that a day had eagerly anticipated had arrived. My father, like myself, loves animals and does everything in his power to insure that their lives under our care are meticulously cared for in all aspects of animal husbandry. Given the novelty of a newborn lamb on the farm, I knew the importance of attending to the lamb as quickly as possible. After all, if there is anything that defines us as a farm, it is our love for our animals. Unable to contain my glee, I told the kids about the new arrival, we grabbed breakfast on the go, jumped into the Honda CR-V, cleaned and with a human occupancy only rule now in place, and drove up to the farm. The joy we shared as a family watching the new lamb, Daisy, stumble after her mother was palpable. I could see the wonder in the faces of my two little ones. My kids, not convinced of sheep as companions, fell in love with the new lamb…and the next two that followed during the Summer.
After allowing the ewe to clean her lamb and establish a bond with her lamb, I sterilized the remaining piece of the umbilical cord, fed momma, and sat back with my own precious lambs, Cameron and Addyson, to watch a new mother nudge, guard, and teach her newborn lamb. My lambs repeatedly exclaimed, “She’s just so cute! I want to name the next one Daddy.” They would each have their turn naming the next two lambs.
Both lambs that would follow, Midnight and Storm, would weigh in at just over 6 lbs, which is at or near the average weight of Shetland lambs. Shetland lambs are up on their feet in no time, unlike us human beings who take 9 – 12 months to find their feet. The fact that they stood so quickly on their own made it easy for me to weigh the lambs on my platform scale. Taking records of the date of birth, weight at birth, conditions of birth, colorings, health status, and any other pertinent information quickly followed weighing the lambs. Shetland sheep truly are easy lambers with strong maternal instincts that go hand in hand with their hardiness as a breed for our snow filled and cold infused Winters on the North shore of New Brunswick.
To date, my experiences with Shetland sheep have brought a great deal of pleasure to my foray into sheep production. They love saltine crackers, have unique personalities, are curious, produce beautiful natural colored wool, and provide lots of fodder for story telling which leads me to the story of the last lamb, Storm.
In an effort to learn about the lambing behavior of Shetland sheep and experientially document the tell-tale signs of imminent lambing, I decided, as both a precaution and an educational experience, to follow the last lambing. I have years of experience in assisting cattle, when necessary, with difficult births but in the equine world of lambing my rating is at nil. Dr. Gallivan had graciously given me an arm load of books when I left so I wasn’t a complete greenhorn in the area of lambing. Well, maybe I was. At any rate, Martha showed behavior consistent with being close to lambing such as getting up and down, making of a bag (udder), dazed appearance, and finally the passing of her water bag. I thought, “Oh wow, I’m going to witness my first lambing.” Outside the barn, a thunderstorm crackled, illuminating the sky in the heat of the August night. Inside the barn, I lay on a stack of hay, praying for a healthy lamb, cowboy hat resting over my exhausted visage. It was nearing 2 am so I got up, went inside my parents house to tell them that I’d be back up in the morning as the ewe didn’t look to be distressed and would likely lamb before morning. Oh but that was not the case, when I returned to say goodnight to the animals, there was a brand new ram lamb that only 5 minutes earlier had not taken his first breath. Amazing! In the same manner that I had never witnessed any breeding in my flock, this ewe decided to keep the birth of her lamb private, away from the shepherd’s eyes.
As I continue to raise sheep, I find myself thinking that just as these beautiful sheep are under my care, so too am I under the care of my Shepherd. Psalm 100:3 says, ” We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” I am thankful for the experience of having these beautiful small-bodied with big personality sheep. A little over a year later, we are now registered Shetland Sheep breeders with NASSA (North American Shetland Sheep Association).
More to come in the near future on my experiences with raising Shetland sheep on MacCurdy Farm.