Our field’s overstocked, so we have to reduce the number of sheep.
We don’t own the sheep we use for training the dogs, they belong to a sheep farmer in Mid-Wales. For years now, Glyn’s kept us supplied with however many sheep we want.
He’s happy to change them at any time, but to keep his travelling to a minimum, we try to keep the same sheep for a full year. The new sheep normally arrive as ewe-lambs (this year’s female lambs) at the end of September and the previous batch are taken away to run with the rams and hopefully produce their own lambs in the spring.
The arrangement suits Glyn because a few of his sheep get free grazing for a year – and it suits us because Glyn (a serious sheepdog trials competitor himself) brings us welsh mules, which are usually ideal for training a sheepdog as they show little or no aggression to the dog. They flock together very well too.
We take responsibility for the health of the sheep, but Glyn’s happy to change any or all of them if we ask him to for any reason.
Welsh mules are very hardy. They survive harsh conditions with little food in winter, so Glyn usually recommends we don’t feed them, but as we’re regularly chasing them with dogs we like to supplement the meagre amount of grass they find in the field during the winter with something nourishing to keep them in good condition.
We also reduce the numbers in winter. If the weather is wet, the ground can become very muddy, and of course, the more sheep we have, the costlier it will be to feed them, but in the spring, the grass grows very quickly, so we like to increase the numbers again as it gets warmer, to keep the grass to a manageable length.
Deciding how many sheep to have can be tricky. If we could accurately predict the weather, it would be easier, but as things are, we have to guess.
During a mild winter, fifteen sheep on our 2 hectare (5 acre) patch seems to work well, but last winter was exceptionally wet and five would have been enough. The weather was so wet, we had to cancel our sheepdog training courses from October to March, so having the extra numbers just meant the field was even muddier than it needed to be.
Going into spring, the ground was so wet, I thought that as the weather warmed up the grass would grow wildly, so I opted to increase the size of our little flock to forty. Previously, we’d had between twenty five and thirty throughout the summer but this didn’t seem like enough because we spent a lot of time mowing. If you’ve trained a sheepdog on long grass, you’ll know that it’s far from ideal, so we like to keep a covering that’s around ankle deep.
Glyn duly brought us some extra sheep and it was great to have a proper little flock at home for a change. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t warm up for a very long time. As well as being easily the wettest winter I can remember, we had the coldest spring I’m aware of too. As a result, by the time the weather was warm enough for the grass to grow, the ground had dried out and with forty sheep eating it, the grass never really got started.
All through the summer so far, I’ve been anxiously hoping for lots of rain, and in the last week or so we’ve had a couple of good showers but it’s come too late. The field is like a lawn. We must ahve saved a lot of fuel that we’d normally use in the mower, but we need a good covering of grass to act as a carpet and prevent the sheep from poaching (pushing the grass into the wet ground and churning it up with their feet) the field up through the winter – and grass doesn’t usually grow much between now and next spring, so we have to drastically reduce the number of sheep as soon as possible.
Sadly, around twenty-five sheep will be going back to Wales on Tuesday. This will leave us with just fifteen sheep, but we don’t have a choice really. Of course, we can revise the number at the end of September, but unless the grass improves rapidly I expect to reduce the flock size still further when the new sheep arrive.