It appears to be a common scenario that a small number of sheep are acquired as pets or for ornamental reasons, to keep the grass down in a garden/orchard or as companions for other animals. Caddy (also known as pet or tame) lambs are very easily sourced in the springtime. And the ones that don’t go back to the farm they came from or turned into cutlets come autumn, usually tend to linger in the field as pets. To many, it seems a natural step forward to think of mating the females, in hope of replicating the cuteness of the baby lambs.
As a vet, I must take a slightly cynical view to this proposition and caution anyone with very little to no experience of livestock. Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should!
Sheep can quite happily live as pets without being bred
For some households this would be the best outcome. This is because tupping and lambing can be very stressful times indeed, and we should not be led purely by our hearts. Consider not only whether your ewes are ready – i.e. old enough/not too old, fit enough, in good health, etc; but also if YOU are ready.
Breeding animals of any kind is not something that should be taken on without some degree of direct experience or substantial research. It would be very easy to fall into the false sense of security that once you put a tup in, he’ll know what to do. Yes he will (most of the time anyway); however once he’s done his job he just goes off to his bachelor fields and he won’t contribute to childcare!
It will be down to the owner to make sure the ewes get to lambing time in good condition and health. Plus be prepared to intervene in case anything goes slightly off plan. For this reason, I would strongly suggest consulting with your local vets both before tupping and approaching lambing; several farm vet practices offer lambing courses.
How to prepare for tupping
Assuming all the appropriate research has been undertaken and a likely prospective Romeo (tup – or should that be “Rameo”? – sorry! Ed.) identified, how do we go about breeding our pet ewes? Are there any considerations we need to keep in mind?
First of all, their health status must be checked, including their fitness
Pet sheep tend to be overweight, thanks to lush grazing in understocked fields and/or overzealousness with the feed bucket to keep them tame. Monitoring the Body Condition Score (BCS) is important in all types of sheep, not just commercial flocks. The ideal BCS sits at 3-3.5 on a scale of 1-5 (where 1 is too angular and thin and 5 is obese).
Age-wise, ewes can breed for a number of years
However, for their first mating it would be preferable if they are 8-18 months when going to the tup. Old ewes that have never bred are more likely to have issues conceiving or at birth. Bear in mind that when ewe lambs and gimmers (ewes between their first and second shearing) go to the tup for the first time are likely to be smaller than their expected adult size. Choosing an “easy lambing” tup would make the process a lot smoother for everyone involved. Please ask your vet and/or a knowledgeable local farmer for help in this.
If the ewes are fit and healthy, without lameness and other obvious issues, picking the tup would be the next step
Sheep are seasonal breeders, and most breeds of sheep enter mating season in the autumn. Ideally the tup needs to be acclimatised, however very small pet flocks often don’t even own a tup; rather, he is often hired. In situations where the tup is not a regular resident of the holding, it should still be imperative to make sure he receives a quarantine and suitable antiparasite treatment. Speak to the tup’s owner and this should be easily arranged. The health status of the tup ought to match the ewes’ – i.e. don’t breed a lame or otherwise unwell tup.
Illness is very likely to make him subfertile or even infertile, causing an unnecessarily prolonged lambing. A healthy, fit tup should be able to mate with upwards of 30 ewes during one cycle (17 days). Most tups are left for 2-3 cycles. Any longer and there is a distinct risk of a very overdrawn lambing.
Another factor to consider would be to try and match or complement your ewes’ body shape/breed to the tup’s. Although sheep breeds are not as extreme in differences as dog breeds (and yet Chihuahuas have been known to mate with much larger females!), a large commercial breed or terminal sire tup may not be the best choice if you own small hill/native breed ewe lambs. Although sheep farmers always cross terminal sires with smaller, hardier hill females, they may be doing so with many years of experience on their shoulders. And are usually being careful to pick a tup with easy lambing traits. Again, please ask your vet or someone local with plenty of sheep knowledge if you are unsure.
When should they go to the tup?
November 5th is a traditional date for introducing the tup to the ewes; for the ewes to be lambing at the end of March the following year. In many British postcodes (except perhaps the most northerly), lambing in April is a good compromise between waiting for new grass and achieving good lamb weights at the end of summer without having to use creep (extra) feed.
Many pet sheep holdings (especially those with children) vary their lambing date slightly every year; this is to coincide with the Easter holidays. While in theory this is a very cute proposition, in practice should you need the vet in an emergency on Easter Monday it could mean a slightly longer wait. This is because most vet practices run a much smaller vet team during bank holidays.
Of course the final decision will have to be weighed depending on the individual flock circumstances. How many ewes, how much help would be available at lambing time, facilities etc. As always, a chat with your farm vets about your intended plans and desired outcomes will be invaluable. You will gain useful information and advice that is guaranteed to help understand the process; making it more enjoyable and less stressful.