From A to B
Moving sheep can be a particularly challenging time for smallholders. If like me you rent fields elsewhere, or have divided up your smallholding into more usable spaces. Then you may have to move your sheep regularly. However, smallholders rarely have a trained sheep dog, or access to expensive sheep handling equipment. Furthermore, smallholders often have rare breeds of sheep or more primitive types that are known to be difficult or less likely to flock together. All of these factors combined can lead to a stressful time for both you and your sheep. My experience is that moving sheep is a skilled job and one you need to learn.
Here at Fifesmallholder space is limited so anything we set up needs to be flexible, because areas have different uses at different times of year. Through experience we have learned that you need to plan the movement of your sheep like military manoeuvres. Especially during sesnsitive times like moving the girls (when pregnant) to get them scanned, vacinated and moved to lambing areas.
We use three things regularly:
Move sheep using food
- We either draw sheep forward with food or divert them with food. For example if you want to get a sheep to move forward through a gate that you are standing close too(behind is OK but if you are in front of them they will hesitate) then get their head in a bucket or let them eat from your hand (you need to give them some – if you just tease then they will give up). Your sheep must be used to this and trust you otherwise this will not work (it takes time and patience but a sheep will eat out of your hand). Winter time is the best time to do this (they are less interested in feed in the summer when there is plenty of grass), but we try to feed our sheep whenever we visit (especially if we are planning on doing something with them). Lambs and those that have not lambed are another thing all together and are the hardest to try and tame (they do not trust and are very scared) – we normally put an older ewe in with them that knows the ropes and who trusts you – the rest will follow (if the older sheep thinks its Ok then it must be) because of the herd instinct. Likewise if we want to enter a field with the pickup and don’t want them crowding the gate and escaping – then feed them away from the area in question and take their mind off the opportunity.
Move sheep using their herding instinct
- Sheep will always walk away from you (the danger) towards others like them (safety in numbers). You can therefore drive them in a direction – if they are thinking about bolting or running past you might be able to stop them if you wave your arms erratically and make a sudden high pitched noise. You can also move sheep by countering their position, if they move left then you move left and stare at them – they will move right. A good sheep dog can hold a flock with just a good eye or stare – try to act like a good sheepdog. However if they decide to run past you – YOU WILL NOT CATCH THEM (short of a rugby tackle that might harm you or the sheep). In some situations you might only get one chance (they will learn and remember what has happened that day) – if you haven’t been working up to this (e.g. feeding them regularly etc) then either go for a cup of tea and start again or try another day. Sheep are not stupid – they can also count. One person is OK but two people means that something is going to happen. Either hide the other person or try and do it yourself – you’d be surprised with the opportunities that present themselves – just be ready in advance so that you can close the gate or trailer. A long rope on a gate is a good idea – it enables you to swing something shut without being too close. Another thing about sheep is that they will follow other sheep, so you either trap one sheep (e.g. in a trailer with a hurdle) or you get everyone else on the otherside of the gate and they will not want to be alone. However this also means that if you put a sheep in a pen (because it is sick for example), always make sure that they can see or have a friend in the pen with them. Otherwise they will get stressed or try to escape, if you want to move a ewe with lambs – just catch the lamb (easier said than done without a crook) and carry the lamb at nose height to the ewe and walk backwards. The lamb will bleat and the ewe will respond and follow. Another thing is that if you want to catch a sheep, do not look at it. I know this sounds strange but you can get much closer to it if it does not think that it is the focus of the event. Look somewhere else but watch the sheep out of the corner of your eye, or pretend to be doing something else. We have a lot of metal lamb hurdles and have found them to be flexible and have lots of uses, if a sheep will not enter a gate or enclosure then make a funnel leading to a race and pen. It also helps if you feed them in the pen regularly so that you can just close the gate. Put the hurdles up in advance and let them get used to it, otherwise they will get suspicious of anything new. On that subject, wearing the same jacket and not having strangers about does keep the stress down. A bottle fed lamb, and ewes that have lambed will trust you more – use that to your advantage.
Move sheep using a dog
- If you want to stop running around a field then get yourself a sheepdog, or a retired trials dog. we dont have a sheep dog (it’s on the list) but it is not the first time that we have used our dogs to control a situation. Sheep are not as scared of humans as they are about dogs – extend your coverage (a crook is also a good thing to make you seem bigger – it extends your arm) with a dog on a lead or extend-a-lead. In a situation where a sheep keeps running away through a gap (they will find the opportunity and use it again and again), I have tied my dog there and the sheep will not pass the dog. There are dangers involved in this situation – you need to know your dog and you need to make sure it cannot run free. This could potentially be disasterous – either the dog could chase or attack the sheep and stress them, or the sheep could ram the dog and hurt it. Unless it is a trained sheep dog – I always make sure they are on a lead and secured in position, I also only use no-aggressive breeds like my labradors or collie). If all else fails then pay a shepherd to round up your sheep.
I know this all sounds complicated but you will fall into a way of doing things, I have seen a farmer move his sheep by just waving an empty feed bag from the back of a quad – all he needs is one sheep to follow and they all will. Routine is another thing, if a sheep has done it before it will remember (that is where hefting originates from and the knowledge is passed from ewe to lamb). Good luck, if you can afford it then invest in mobile systems that makes life easier. Otherwise then plan your moves and leave nothing to chance.
- We open the doors on our vehicle in order to prevent a sheep running past (blocking a single track road for example), this is done in the absence of hurdles.
- A bucket of feed in the trailer will often tempt someone in to investigate.
- We prefer lamb hurdles that secure with a ring at the top – they are easier to handle than other hurdles.
- The breed of sheep is important, it is my experience that the more primitive the breed the less trusting they are. The one exception to this rule is Ryelands, it is said that the gate to a field can lie open and they won’t think to go through it. We crossed our wild shetlands with a Ryeland tup for that reason and got a sheep that was easier to handle. If you have sheep like Hebrideans then good luck! However because smallholders are more hands on and likely to spent more time with their sheep, they may learn to trust or are not so scared – hopefully.
- If you move the lamb first then normally a ewe will follow. Keep it at head height to the ewe and move backwards or place the lamb in the area you want the ewe to go – it will call to its mum and she will move to it.