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Sheep, Fiber, Spinning, Dyeing. PICK MY BRAIN! for Tips, Hints, Comments and Observations.

So who the heck am I? Briefly: My name is Helen York. I live up on the foggy coast of Maine in the U.S. I started out, years ago as a painter, worked as a rock 'n roll singer, writer, printer, horticulturist, and go-go dancer. I earned my first University degree in the art of Glassblowing, and then, the M.F.A. in Ceramic Sculpture. For nearly the past 20 years I have lived and worked on what is called a saltwater farm...right on the shore, with some very rocky soil! My family and I have raised Shropshire, Lincoln, Corriedale and Natural Colored sheep, a small herd of Miniature Dexter cattle, as well as angora bunnies, border collies and lots and lots of cats. We shear our own animals, and use all the fiber in our yarns, some spun at a small commercial mill, some hand-spun by me. I started spinning in 1979, and for the past ten years or so, I have produced from 200 to 400 lbs of hand-spun each year. The following is a collection of instructions, tips, ideas and musings about spinning, fiber selection, dyes, animals and whatever...


The purpose of this is NOT to scare you, discourage you or dissuade you from a decision to get into sheep! This is like that talk about sex that is supposed to happen between parents and kids. Most parents aren't trying to scare their kids away from a healthy sex-life in the future. They just want the child to be intelligently informed, and to wait until THE RIGHT TIME. So when is it THE RIGHT TIME to get into raising sheep? NOT at the auction... until you know a little something about sheep. It is true that a lot of very nice animals cross the auction block, but there are also a lot of problem animals that someone else is trying to get rid of. Wait until you have a chance of discerning the difference before signing up for that auction number! NOT on a spur of the moment impulse to buy that lamb because it's cute, or those sheep because they seem like such a good deal. NOT when you don't have a place to put them, or a FENCED area for them to run in. In my opinion the biggest cause of neophyte shepherd burnout is inadequate fencing. I recommend a page-wire outer fence, with inner electric secondary fences dividing the larger pasture into several different plots. One acre of land in the Eastern U.S. can be expected to keep 3 ewes and their lambs for the grazing season. Check with your local Cooperative extension Agent for stocking rates in your area. Their barn can be a simple 3 sided shed. More air is better than a stuffy closed-up barn.Locate the sheep operation on relatively dry, well-drained land, as wet or swampy soil can lead to a number of complications including foot-rot or liver flukes. Provide a source of water, especially in the warmer months. Sheep will if given the chance eat snow in the winter, but no such option is open to them in the summer! As far as feed, it actually varies according to breed, age and by individual metabolism, but allow 4 pounds of dry weight of feed per day per ewe. This can be hay, or hqay plus grain, or hay plus any other feed, like silage, roots, pumpkins, potatoes, etc. Lastly, they will need to be vaccinated against various contagious illnesses- and possibly Rabies. Check with the department of Agriculture or your local veterinarian for guidelines for your geographic area. And don't forget Worming! Sheep pick up stomach, gut, lung, and just about every other kind of worm! Adults are generally not bothered very much by these parasites, but your lambs can be stunted or even killed by an infestation. So figure out a regimen of worming, and stick to it. So make your plans, talk to your county extension agents, department of agriculture folks, get a vet who likes sheep if you don't already have one, build your barn, string your fence and then, when you're sure, when it's right for you...Go ahead and get some sheep!


Raising sheep was not what I was interested in when we bought our farm. I thought sheep were delicate creatures, overly fond of dying at the drop of a hat, and just too darned difficult! My husband, on the other hand had a pastoral image of the ideal farm in his mind, and that picture included sheep...grazing peacefully in the foreground.

Before we could move toward the fulfillment of his dream, we had to choose what kind of sheep we wanted in the picture, and that proved to be truly difficult! With hundreds of breeds of sheep to choose from, picking the right one for your situation and your needs can seem either totally baffling, or some kind of hit or miss random selection. It doesn't have to be!
First of all, ask yourself why you want sheep. What do you expect to get from them? Wool, Meat, Milk, Beauty, Rarity, ? Do you want to show them? Do you have children who may want a 4-H sheep project? Do you want them to pay for themselves, or be a money-making operation?
Secondly, what is your farm environment like? Are you limited as to acreage, rainfall, climate. Is your land lush and fertile, or is it rocky upland? Or is it all wet soils?
When you have answered these questions for yourself, remember everyone has different reasons for raising sheep, so there are no WRONG answers. Now it's time to go out and look at some sheep, talk to some sheep breeders, read some books. This is the research phase.
You must be on the net or you wouldn't be reading this, so a good place to start is the Oklahoma Sheep Breeds PageThis has photos and descriptions of every breed available in the U.S. and many others as well. There are often Breed Association addresses there as well, from whom you can get lists of breeders.Go to the public library. If there are no sheep books there, request an Interlibrary Loan- it's free! A good book is Paula Simmons' Starting Right with Sheep, and there are lots more. There are also several magazines to look for, among them...SHEEP!, and Shepherd Magazine.

While reseraching on the net, or in books, don't get your heart set on one particular breed. Circumstances may keep you from getting those sheep right now, so keep your mind open, and make a list of sheep you like and why.

Now armed with a little information go to sheep farms, and also to fairs and sheep and wool shows. When setting up visits to sheep farms, explain to the owner that you're still in the research phase and not ready to purchase sheep yet, and to be courteous, thank them in advance for any information they can give you. At fairs, make sure you're not throwing a thousand questions at a harried sheep-raiser who is frantically trying to groom his sheep in preparation for the show! Ask if he or she has time to talk about sheep with you. If not when ? If never, ask someone else. Most shepherds are naturally friendly and LOVE to talk sheep with anyone, anytime, anyplace.
So here's what to think about. If you primarily want wool, you should select a wool breed. These range from the fine wools- Merino, rambouillet to the Longwools, Romney, Leicester, Lincoln. If you don't know much about wool, start your study there. Buy fleeces from breeds you think you might like, and find out if you really do. Then you'll be happy with your first homegrown fleeces!
If you want Wool plus the ability to raise lambs for meat, raise the so-called dual-purpose breeds. Many wool breeds have the ability to produce nice growthy lambs, some do not. If you are not interested in raising purebred lambs, get ewes of a wool breed, and a ram of one of the fast growing meat breeds. You will get the wool from the moms, and the lambs will inherit a lot of body type and growthiness from Dad. Of course if you keep any of the lambs as replacement ewes, their wool will usually not be as good as that of their mothers. If Wool is not important to you, choose a meat breed, or even one of the hair breeds- sheep which do not require shearing.
Purebred? Crossbred? If all you want is wool or meat production and you never intend to show or sell any of you lambs as breeding stock, then crossbred sheep may be better for you. They will cost less initially, and be healthier, stronger...a result of their mixed heritage, it's called hybrid vigor. If you are interested in selling breeding stock, going to the county fair, a sheep show at a wool festival, if you have a child who might want to get into a 4-H sheep project with these animals, then purebred may be the way to go.

Different Breeds originated in different environments. And while it is definitely possible to raise any animal outside it's normal environment, it is easiest to match the breed to the kind of land/climate. There are hot weather sheep, mountain sheep, desert sheep, sheep raised wild on sea islands, and sheep who are so domesticated, so tame, they want to come inside the house with you.
But which one is BEST? despite some publications put out by some breed associations there is no best breed for all people, for all situations. All breeds have advantages and disadvantages. Romneys have beautiful, eay spinning wool, and they are resistant to foot-rot...BUT they do have a tendency toward lambing problems. Suffolks are big, fast growing meat sheep, but they have appetites to match, and there are some recessive birth defects in some lines. Cheviots are hardy, self-reliant and very good mothers, but they are also relatively wild, nervous , difficult to herd with a dog! I've mentioned just a few, but all breeds have their pro's and con's.

When you have actually narrowed your search down to a few breeds, it's time to wheel and deal. Some believe you should buy sheep available in your area, so as to be able to get new breeding stock easily in the future. This is not as much of a problem as it might seem. Ram lambs fit easily into dog carriers and can be air-shipped, they fit in station wagons, they can hitch rides with other flocks going cross-country. You can work it out. If possible,make a trip to see the sheep in person. If not insist on: photos, flock records for births, weights, clips, vaccinations, OPP tests, and if pertinent ask for wool samples. Most reputable breeders guarantee their stock as to type, and reproductive health. I have read several ads recently with disclaimers freeing the breeder of any responsibility as to type, size, or reproductive consistancy. I would avoid these breeders!

When you get your sheep home, get them settled down, and keep them quiet for several days. If you have any other sheep or goats or deer on your farm, keep your new additions quarantined for at least a couple of weeks. And watch them. Look for heads hanging down- a sign of pneumonia, a limp, a sore on the mouth, or for a decrease in appetite. Or any change. After a while your sheep will be acclimatied to their new home, but it's a good idea to keep the habit of close observation. The shepherd's gaze is the best medicine!

SHEARING, the kindest cuts...

< left> Wild Mountain sheep and some primitive breeds of sheep shed their wool in the Spring, so they don't need to be sheared. All other sheep need to be sheared at least once a year, 2 or more times if the breeds are Longwools.

We never paid anyone to shear our sheep, although many sheep keepers here in the US prefer to rely on professional shearers to come in and do the job. But since we began our flock with just a few sheep, it was not an overwhelming task to shear them ourselves, even though we knew nothing about it! We began with a pair of standard sheep shears, available from companies like Sheepman Supply, or Omaha Vaccine Co. They cost about $16- $30 and will last for years if they are kept rust-free. They will need to be sharpened periodically with hand sharpening stones. Other than that they are dependable and useful tools. You will never regret getting them even if you get out of keeping sheep!
We learned to shear in the traditional way by tripping the sheep, and setting it on it's haunch, with the weight of the sheep balanced between your thighs. Go to a shearing school or demonstration, and try it out. If you like the position, great! You may be on your way toward a bright career as SHEARER! I did't care for the position much myself. It was hard on my back, I took sheep kicks to the nose, I rumpled the wool, and the sheep seemed uncomfortable and eager for this novice and slow shearer to be finished!
Our solution was to shear the sheep in a standing position, while it is immobilized on a Showing Stand. This does not work well with the sheep on the ground! The showing stand is like a goat milking stand with a bracket to hold the sheep's head. After a few minutes the sheep will stop dancing around, and you should be able to get some work done.

We open the fleece just in back of the nest of chaff and debris at the back of the neck. Put the blades down close to the skin and snip. Push back the wool. this exposes more uncut wool. Cut in some kind of pattern, from side to side around the sheep, stopping before you hit the armpit, and the belly wool, or lengthwise. The point is to get off the good wool in one usable piece! When I have my good fleece, I put it in a sheet, cover it, and then finish shearing the belly wool, butt wool, leg wool and head wool-NOT handspinning quality!

Electric Shears- very useful if you have more than a few sheep. I have 2 pair, and I'll tell you about those next time!

Click Here for the Ameriacn Sheep and Wool Growers Information Pages.
And Click Here for pictures and descriptions of a zillion breeds of sheep!
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