Shetland Sheep in an orchard
We acquired a small flock of Shetland sheep during the course of 2005. The purpose of the sheep is two-fold: to mow the grass in part of the orchard and to fertilize the trees. The high-quality fleece, in eleven natural colours, is the by-product which we sell to weavers, knitters and felters.
Shetland sheep are a “primitive” breed – i.e. they have not been bred multiple birthing, fast growth etc. They are hardy, easy to lamb and are happy on a predominantly grass/hay diet. The roots of the Shetland Sheep go back over a thousand years, probably to sheep brought to the Shetland Islands by Viking settlers. They belong to the Northern European short-tailed group which also contains the Finnsheep, Norwegian Spaelsau, Icelandics, Romanovs and others. ▲
Flock size and breeding issues
Three registered ewes and five wethers (two castrated as lambs, the other three as adults) arrived in two batches in 2005. We will be breeding the ewes to registered rams until we reach a sustainable flock size of 20 animals, equivalent to a stocking rate of about six sheep per acre of currently fenced in orchard. Given the small numbers involved we decided to take the risk of relying on outside rams for the first few years. Were we to be lucky enough to produce a good herd-sire of our own, we will likely opt for a closed flock model. The primary purpose of the flock is to supplement the management of our no-spray apple orchard, rather than to sell lambs. ▲
We fenced in a 3.25 acre section of the orchard as well as a 50 by 50 paddock adjacent to the barn in the spring of 2005. We drove in cedar stakes at 10 foot intervals (8 feet lengths, minimum diameter 4 inches) with a post hammer attached to a backhoe as the terrain is extremely rocky. Posts were driven down to frost-line. A sawmill cut us 6-8 inch boards one inch thick from fresh white pine logs. Rather than cut all the boards to exact lengths (as post spacing was variable to the extent of +/- 10%) we nailed in the boards in an offset pattern, with one pair of posts carrying three boards, the next one carrying four boards etc. We stapled 4-inch wide strips of welded wire along the two lowest gaps in the boards to ensure total exclusion of the plentiful coyote and dog population.
The result is an attractive alternative to a page-wire fence for an all-in materials price of C$1.50 per linear foot. We have no issues with sagging wire, no need for braced posts, and it doubles as a snow fence along most of our long driveway. Needless to say, we get heavy snowfalls, which can play havoc with permanently installed electric fencing. These advantages, along with the marketing value of a “pretty” fence, justified the cost. Were we to extend fencing to the back of the property, where the coyote threat is more significant, we would consider high-tensile fencing on cedar stakes as well as a more substantial guardian presence. ▲
Guardians and herding
A lot of time was spent worrying about both issues, with little effect. Not knowing anything about sheep and being reluctant to spend time investigating issues unconnected to fruit production meant that many of our early concerns turned out to be misplaced. The pasture is small enough for the flock to respond to a whistled call which they associate with a sweet evening snack, so they are very easy to call back into the barn. And if some of them are distracted by other noises (traffic, the horses across the road, the neighbouring dogs), we rely on our bellwether, Troy, who is something of a greedy goat with a keen ear…
We initially considered a guardian llama for the flock as we have great numbers of coyotes in the area. However, the potential damage to the apple trees from a tall browser discouraged us. We also spoke to a number of breeders of livestock guardian dogs and were put off by cost and training issues and the potential impact on our lovable -- but ignorant – Golden Retriever. A good fence and rounding up the flock every evening has been a workable solution, but we are also looking at using a donkey (small standard jennet or gelding) as a guardian as the flock size increases. ▲
Trees and grazing
Sheep love the sweet taste of apple leaves and twigs, and quickly strip away all low-hanging branches. (This had the unforeseen effect of improving visibility throughout the orchard and making it easy to spot the flock among the trees.) The orchard where our flock grazes comprises 50 year-old standard trees, with thick and unpalatable bark. In the presence of saplings or dwarf/semi-dwarf apple trees, sheep will cause significant stress to the trees and are not a viable option unless each tree is to be protected with something quite substantial – not an easy option on our rocky terrain. The sheep have not caused significant damage in our orchard, and the shade of the trees has been a welcome resting spot for the flock during our hot and humid summers.
Due to previous neglect, parts of the orchard had infestations of noxious plants such as milkweed. We mowed the orchard twice at the beginning of the season and continued to mow the weed patches in order to prevent reseeding during the course of the summer. With eight sheep spending an average of 12 hours a day grazing in the orchard, there has been plenty to eat and they have been barely able to keep up with grass growth. Needless to say, the sheep adore windfall apples, and in our no-spray regime we have no worries about leftover chemicals entering the sheep diet. Bear in mind that even in “organic” orchards, a certain amount of noxious stuff (e.g. sulfur and lime) can be ingested by grazing animals. One intriguing possibility is that the sheep may help suppress the insect pest population by clearing out the windfall and disrupt the scab cycle by munching on infected leaves. It is too early to tell whether we will indeed reap these benefits, but the sheep certainly won’t control our arch enemy, the plum curculio, which over-winters in deciduous woodlands. ▲
Feed and care
Pretty simple really: the sheep graze on orchard grass with some windfall apples in the summer and fall and are fed hay (50:50 Timothy/Alfalfa) in the winter and spring. Our apple crop is exclusively juiced for apple cider vinegar production, so we have plenty of pomace. This we freeze in Ziploc bags and serve as regular feed supplement during the rest of the year, mixed in with some molasses and grain for flushing the ewes and also for encouraging the sheep to get out of the barn and use the outside feeder in mid-winter. We are in a glaciated rocky rolling hill terrain which helps to wear down hooves. These still need trimming, especially when the flock is not out to pasture. We have not yet detected worms. The apochryphal folk wisdom around our parts holds that sheep nibble at milkweed to de-worm themselves. Too good to be true?
A great source of practical advice, along with plenty of plans for building things like feeders, is by Paula Simmons, Raising Sheep the Modern Way, Garden Way Publishing, ISBN 0-88266-093-4 and now unfortunately out-of-print (but still available second-hand – we found ours on eBay.) Ron Parker’s The Sheep Book takes you through the shepherd’s year in more poetic fashion, and is downloadable free-of-charge.
And of course, we would not have even got to first base without the patient advice and calm encouragement of Linnéa Rowlatt, at Riverglen Biodynamic Farm in Ottawa, who sold us our foundation stock. ▲