1902 Encyclopedia > Agriculture > Mangagement of Mountain Sheep

(Part 87)


Mangagement of Mountain Sheep

We have already taken notice of the extent to which Cheviot sheep have of late years been introduced in the Highlands of Scotland. Many of the immense grazings there are rented by farmers resident in the south of Scotland, who only visit their Highland farms from time to time, and intrust the management of their flocks and shepherds, which rival in numbers those of the ancient patriarchs, to an overseer, whose duty it is to be constantly on the grounds, to attend in all respects to the interests of his employer, see his orders carried into effect, and give him stated information of how it fares with his charge.

The following pertinent remarks we quote from an extensive and experienced Highland sheep-farmer : ---

"The management of flocks in the Highlands is much the same as on high and exposed farms in the higher districts of Roxburghshire, Dumfriesshire, and Selkirkshire, as regards the ewe hirsels; the ewe lambs either not being weaned, or that only for eight or ten days, so that they may continue to follow their mothers. The wether lambs are sent to the wether ground about the beginning of August, and herded on the part of it considered most adapted for their keep till about the middle of October, when they are sent to turnips mostly in Ross-shire, where they remain till the middle of March or beginning of April. This is one of the heaviest items of expense in Highland farming, amounting to fully 4s. per head; and thus, upon a farm equally stocked with ewes and wethers, adds just about one-third to the rental of the farm. On the return of the wether hogs they are put to particular parts of the wether ground, at large amongst the other ages of wether stock, where they remain until drawn out when three years old at the usual season to send to market; with this exception, that the year following (when they are dinmonts), the smallest of them, those that are not considered capable of wintering at home, say to the extent of two or three to the score, are again drawn out and sent with the hogs to turnips.

"Mr. Sellar, in his Report of the County of Sutherland, gives a very minute and detailed account of the mode of management as practiced on his farms. This, however, does not apply to extensive West Highland farms, which have no arable farms attached, no fields to bring in the diseased or falling-off part of the stock to, nor it is ever practicable to shift any part of the stock to different parts of the farm from that on which they have been reared."

Sheep Farming on the hills drained by the Tweed.

Until quite a recent date the grassy hills enclosing the upper valley of the Tweed and its numerous tributaries were stocked almost entirely with Cheviot sheep, and the highest and most heathery portions of the Lammermuir hills with the blackfaced breed. Since about the year 1850, under the stimulus of a growing demand and rapidly advancing price for cross-bred lambs, a great change of practice has been going steadily on. Formerly, on such hill-country farms, cultivation of the soil was restricted to a very small scale indeed, but latterly it has been extending up the valleys and hill-sides at a rapid rate. Large areas of rough natural pasture are yearly being converted into fields, which are well enclosed by substantial stone walls, and by draining, liming, and the liberal application of portable manures, are made to produce luxuriant crops of turnips, cats, and the cultivated clovers and grasses. As this process of reclamation goes on, half-bred sheep (Leicester-Cheviots) are substituted for pure Cheviots, the lambs of this cross breed being at weaning-time worth from 10s. to 15s more per head than Cheviots, their fleeces heavier by 2lbs each as well as more valuable per lb, and the draft ewes also more valuable in about the same proportion as the lambs. These half-bred sheep must be kept almost exclusively on the reclaimed lands, which, however, will keep about double the number of this more valuable breed of sheep than they did of the less valuable when in their natural unreclaimed state. When the lowest-lying and kindliest soils of such farms have thus been improved and devoted to the keeping of half-bred sheep, the higher and poorer parts are often unfit for keeping Cheviot sheep, and are stocked with the hardier blackedfaced breed. Cheviots are in consequence rather at a discount at present as compared with a period still recent.

The general management of these hill-country half-breed flocks does not differ materially from those of the plains. They require generous feeding, and being prolific and good nurses, they pay well for it. The oats grown on such farms are disposed of most profitably when consumed by the flock.

We begin our description of the management of strictly hill flocks with autumn, and assume that the yearly cast of lambs and aged ewes has been disposed of, and only as many of the ewe lambs retained as are required to keep up the breeding stock. A former practice was to keep these ewe lambs or hoggets by themselves on the best portions of the respective walks, or rakes as they are called on the Borders. Now, however, they are kept apart from their dams only as long (eight or ten days) as suffices to let the milk dry up; whereupon they are returned to the flock or hirsel to which they belong, and at once associated again each with its own dam. The hoggets, under the guidance of the ewes, are thus led about over the ground, according to varying seasons, and under the promptings of an instinct which far surpasses the skill and care of the best shepherd. The latter, indeed, restricts his interference chiefly to keeping his flocks upon their own beat, and allows them to distribute themselves over it according to their own choice. When thus left to themselves each little squad usually selects its own ground, and may be found, the same individuals about the same neighborhood day after day. This plan of grazing the hoggets and ewes together has been attended with the best results. There are far fewer deaths among the former than when kept separate, and being from the first used to the pasturage and acquainted with the ground, they get inured to its peculiarities, and grow up a healthy and shifty stock, more easily managed and better able to cope with trying season than if nursed elsewhere, and brought on to the ground at a more advanced age. Each hogget and its dam may be seen in couples all through the winter and spring, and with the return of summer it is a pretty sight to see these family groups grown into triplets by the addition to each of a little lamb.

As the autumn advances, the flockmaster makes his preparations for smearing or bathing. The smearing materials is a salve composed of tar and butter, which is prepared in the following manner : --- Six gallons of Archangel tar and 50lb of grease-butter are thoroughly incorporated, and as much milk added as makes the salve work freely. This quantity suffices for 100 sheep. This salve destroys vermin, and by matting the fleece, is supposed to add to the comfort and healthiness of the sheep. It adds considerably to the weight of the fleece, but imparts to it an irremediable stain, which detracts seriously from its value per lb. a white salve introduced by Mr. Ballantyne of Holylee is now repute on the borders. It is prepared as follows:--- 30lb butter, 14lb rough turpentine, and 3lb soft soap are melted in a large pot; 2lb soda and _lb arsenic are then dissolved in a gallon of boiling water, and this, along with twelve gallons more of cold water, is intimately mixed with the other ingredients, and yields enough for dressing 100 sheep at the rate of a quart to each. Some persons, believing the arsenic an unsafe application, substitute for it half-gallon of tobacco juice. Instead of the rough turpentine, some also use half-a-grill of spirit of tar for each sheep; this ingredient being mixed in each quart-potful at the time of application.

In applying these salves, the sheep are brought to the homestead in daily detachments, according to the number of men employed, each man getting over about sixty in a day. A sheep being caught and laid upon a stool, the wool is parted in lines running from head to tail, and the tar salve spread upon the skin by taking a little upon the fingers and drawing them along. In using the white salve each shepherd has a boy assistant who pours the liquid salve from a tin pot with a spout, while he holds the wool apart. This white salve destroys vermin, and is believed to nourish the wool and to promote its growth. Of late years the practice of dipping has largely been substituted for salving or pouring. It is practiced as already described in the case of low-country flocks, save only that with large flocks it is expedient to have it performed at some central and otherwise convenient part of the grounds. Instead of a movable tub and dripping board of wood, it is better to have a fixed one built of concrete, or bricks set in cement, with a paved dripping pen large enough to hold 50 sheep in each of its two divisions. The other requisites are a boiler to supply hot water for dissolving the dipping stuff, a pipe to convey cold water to the bath, and a waste pipe to empty it for cleansing. This salving or dipping must all be accompanied before the 20th November, about which time the rams are admitted to the flock. Before this is done another preliminary is required. As the ewe hoggets graze with the flock, it is necessary to guard them from receiving the male, for which purpose a piece of cloth is sewed firmly over their tails, and remains until the rams are withdrawn. This is called breeking them. On open hilly grounds about forty ewes are sufficient for each ram. To insure the vigour and good quality of the flock, it is necessary to have a frequent change of blood. To secure this by purchasing the whole rams required would be very costly, and therefore each flockmaster endeavors to rear a home supply. For this purpose he purchases every autumn, often at a high price, one or two choice rams from some flock of known excellence, and to these he puts a lot of his best ewes, carefully selected from his whole flock. These are kept in an enclosed field until the rutting season is over, and after receiving a distinctive mark are then returned to their respective hirsels. From the progeny of these selected ewes a sufficient number of the best male lambs is reserved to keep up the breeding stock of the farm. The rams are withdrawn from the flock about 1st January, and are then kept in an enclosed field, where they receive a daily feed of turnips.

Except in heavy falls of snow and intense frosts, the flocks subsist during the entire season on the natural produce of their pastures. It is necessary, however, to be provided for such emergencies both as regards food and shelter. For this purpose each shepherd has at suitable parts of his beat several stells or artificial shelters, such as are described at p. 402, and beside each of them a stack of hay from which to fodder the flock when required. So long as the sheep can get at heather or rushes by scraping away the snow with their feet they will not touch the hay, but when the whole surface gets buried and bound up, they are fain to take to it. The hay is laid out in handfuls over the snow, twice a day, if need be. The hay should, however, be administered with caution, and never to a greater extent than is absolutely necessary. Whenever there is a lull in the storm, the shepherd should use his utmost endeavour to move the flock out from their shelter to the nearest piece of rough heather or ground from which the wind has drifted off the snow, and where the sheep can by scrapping with their feet get at their natural food. This should be done not merely to economize hay, but because it is found that sheep invariably come through the hardships of winter in better condition when thus encouraged to shift as much as possible for themselves, than when fed to the full on hay, and allowed to keep to their shelter all the day.

Much vigilance, promptitude, and courage are required on the part of shepherds in these wild and stormy districts in getting their flocks into places of safety on the breaking out of sudden snow-storms, and tending them skillfully there.

In spring advantages is taken of any dry weather that occurs to set fire to the roughest portions of the old heather and other coarse herbage, and this being thus cleared off, a fresh young growth comes up, which yields a sweeter pasture to the flocks for several succeeding years. Careful shepherds are at pains to manage the muir-burning so as to remove the dry effete herbage in long narrow strips, and thus to secure a regular intermixture of old and young heath.

The lambing season is one of much anxiety to the master; and to his shepherds and their faithful sagacious dogs it is one of incessant toil. They must be a-foot from "dawn till dewy eve," visiting every part of their wide range several times a-day, to see that all is right, and to give assistance when required. The ewes of these hardy mountain breeds seldom requires man’s assistance in the act of parturition, but still cross presentations and difficult cases occur even with them. Deaths occur also among the newly-dropt lambs, in which case the dam is taken to the nearest stell, and a twin-lamb (of which there are usually enough to serve this purpose) put in the dead one’s place. The dead lamb’s skin is strip off, and wrap about the living one, which is then shut up beside the dam in a small crib or parik, by which means she is usually induced in a few hours (and always the sooner the more milk she has) to adopt the supposititious lamb. As the lambing season draws to a close, each shepherd collects the unlambed ewes of his flock into an enclosure near his cottage, and examines them one by one to ascertain which are pregnant. To the barren ones he affixes a particular mark, and at once turns them again to the hill, but the others are retained close at hand until they lamb, by which means he can attend to them closely with comparatively little labour. The lambs are castrated and docked at from 10 to 20 days old. For this and for all sorting and drafting purposes an ample fold and suit of pens, formed of stout post and rail, are provided on some dry knoll convenient for each main division of the flock. To this the flock is gently gathered, and penned off in successive lots of 10 or 12, taking care that each lamb has its own dam with it before it is penned, and to do this with as little dogging and running as possible. The male lambs of the pure blackfaced breed, when designed to be kept as wethers, are not castrated until they are eight or ten weeks old, partly because when this is done sooner their horns have a tendency to get so crumpled as to grow into their eyes, and partly because a bold horn is thought to improve the appearance of an aged wether.

On these elevated sheep-walks shearing does not take place until July. It cannot, in fact, be performed until the young wool has begun to grow or rise, and so admit of the shears working freely betwixt the skin and the old matted fleece. The sheep are previously washed by causing them to swim repeatedly across a pool with a gentle current flowing through it. They are made to plunge in from a bank raised, either naturally or artificially, several feet above the surface of the water. This sousing and swimming in pure water cleanses the fleece far more effectually than could be supposed by persons accustomed only to the mode pursued in arable districts. Shearing takes place three or four days after washing, and in the interim much vigilance is required on the part of the shepherd to prevent the sheep from rubbing themselves under banks of moss or earth, and so undoing the washing. In the case of blackfaced flocks washing is now not unfrequently altogether dispensed with, because the greater weight of unwashed wool more than counterbalances the difference in price betwixt washed and unwashed fleeces. Each man usually shears about 60 sheep a-day. It is neither practicable nor expedient to shear these mountain sheep so closely as the fat denizens of lowland pastures. For this operation each shearer is provided with a low-legged sparred stool, having a seat at one end, or with a bench built of green turf. These are arranged in a row close in front of a pen, in which the unshorn sheep are placed. The shearers being seated, each astride his stool or bench, with their backs to the pen, a man in it catches and hands over a sheep to each of them. The sheep is first laid on its back upon the stool, and the wool shorn from the under parts after which its legs are bound together with a soft woolen cord, and the fleece removed, first from the one side and then from the other, by a succession of cuts running from head to tail. The fleeces are thrown upon a cloth and immediately carried to the wool-room, where, after being freed from clots, they are neatly wrapped up and stored away. Before the shorn sheep are released each receives a mark or buist by dipping the owner’s cipher in melted pitch, and stamping it upon the skin of the animal. To discriminate different ages and hirsels, these marks vary in themselves or are affixed to different parts of the sheep. Once or twice a year all stray sheep found upon the farms of a well-defined district are brought to a fixed rendezvous, where their marks are examined by the assembled shepherds, and each is restored to its proper owner.

Weaning takes place in August or early September. A sufficient number of the best ewe lambs of the pure breeds are selected for maintaining the flock and are treated in the way already noticed. With this exception, the whole of the lambs are sold either to low-country grazers or as fat lambs to the butcher. The wether lambs usually go to the former, and the ewe lambs of the cross betwixt blackfaced ewes and Leicester rams to the latter. These ewes being excellent nurses, make their lambs very fat in favourable season, in which case they are worth more to kill as lambs than to rear. Immediately after the weaning, the ewes whish have attained mature age are disposed of, generally to low-country grazers, who keep them for another year, and fatten lamb and dam. To facilitate the culling out of these full-aged ewes, each successive crop of ewe lambs receives a distinctive earmark, by which all of any one age in the flock can be at once recognized.

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