The Right Land for Sheep
Keeping sheep is a big responsibility and there are many things to consider before moving any on to your smallholding or farm. Do you have adequate land, good quality pasture, secure fencing and suitable buildings? All things to consider before buying.
If you're planning on having sheep on your smallholding, you need to know how many sheep your land will support. This can be worked out using the 'stocking density'. A good rule of thumb is to allow one hectare (roughly 2½ acres) for 4 to 5 sheep on lowland pasture. In northern and upland areas, grass growth will be later than on a southern downland, so will support fewer sheep, possibly as few as one per hectare, so be guided by local conditions and practices. This level of stocking will enable you to rotate the grazing through the year, make hay to feed in the winter months, and, if you intend to breed from your sheep, to allow a separate paddock for the ram(s).
Ideally, if your land can be divided into 3 or 4 smaller paddocks, this will enable you to regularly move the sheep onto fresh pasture; not only does this help to preserve the grazing, but also prevents the ground becoming too contaminated with droppings, which puts the sheep at risk from intestinal parasites.
You’ll also need a supply of fresh water; this can be from a mains supply or from a tank that can be towed between paddocks as needed.
Sheep really relish old, unimproved pastures containing lots of different types of grasses and herbs, many of which are deep-rooted and draw beneficial minerals from the soil.
Modern, improved grassland comprises mostly perennial ryegrass that provides high quality grazing, but will need to be replaced every few years.
Ideally, the sward should be approximately 4-6cm long – this takes careful management that can be helped by grazing with different species; horses and cattle, for example, both eat longer grass that sheep will leave.
Familiarise yourself with plants that are poisonous to sheep. See our article here.
Soil type is important too, and it’s well worth having yours analysed to identify any deficiencies. Heavy clay soil is generally more fertile, but can get seriously ‘poached’ in wet weather. On the other hand, very light sandy soils can suffer from drought.
Is your fencing adequate?
A thick hedge will provide some shelter from wind and rain, but can’t be relied on to prevent sheep from breaking through and straying! Also, they can get tangled up in thorns and brambles.
Stock fencing is ideal – it’s sturdy, safe, and will keep sheep in and stray dogs out. The top strand of barbed wire is useful to deter the more agile primitive breeds from jumping out, but isn’t necessary for bigger breeds where a rail might be more useful, especially if you plan to share the grazing with horses where barbed wire could be dangerous. Stock fencing combined with hedging provides both security and shelter.
Electric fencing is very useful for the smallholder as it’s portable – you simply move it to where you need it next, using either mains or a battery supply. You can use tapes, wire or netting, though netting can be a problem with horned breeds.
Just remember, whatever type of fencing you have, it must be secure enough to keep tiny lambs enclosed!
See our article on livestock fencing.
Do you have buildings suitable for housing sheep?
Sheep can of course live outdoors all year; they’ll find shelter from hedges and walls in bad weather. If you’re in a very cold and exposed site you might consider providing a simple field shelter.
If you plan to breed from your flock, a wind and waterproof shed is a godsend to both sheep and shepherd, and by providing protection from the weather, and being able to supervise feeding and lambing, you’ll minimise ewe and lamb losses.
Many types of building will fit the bill, from a simple ‘pole-barn’, to a modern ‘polytunnel’ – the key requirements being draught-free at ground level with good ventilation above. The floor can be earth or concrete, but good drainage is essential. Electric lighting is invaluable, as is a mains water supply.
The sheep house can also be used throughout the year as a handling area where you can create a race and pens using portable hurdles. This will make the tasks of dosing, vaccinating and treating feet a lot easier.
See our DVD 'Establishing Your Flock' for an in-depth guide to starting up your own flock - programme 1 in the DVD series 'Sheep on Your Smallholding'