Sheep in Permaculture
by Raven Ranson
I am a fiber farmer. I have grown flax and cotton, retted nettles, raised wild silk moths, combed rabbits, wrangled llamas, and bribed alpacas. If it can be made into cloth, I’ll grow it. But, my one true love is sheep.
Sheep are more than sweaters on legs though. These woolly jumpers fit well into a holistic farm. They provide wool, milk, meat, manure, and entertainment. They also reduce our reliance on outside imports such as gasoline for the lawnmower, soil amendments, and clothing.
FUN AND GAMES
When it comes to entertainment value, “the annual leaping of the lambs” is hard to beat. For several weeks, the lambs take turns running and jumping over the adults, in a game that is something of a mix between tag and leapfrog. They are always willing for an extra player, be it adult ewe or human, we are always welcome to join in the game.
However, it is the sheer cunning cleverness of sheep that constantly amazes me. For example, Larry, a bummer (bottle-fed orphan lamb), decided one day that he should live in the house with us humans. He developed a knack for putting his nose against the front doorknob and opening the door to let himself in. I discovered this one morning as I was washing dishes with a sudden bleat and a bump from behind simply because I was five minutes late with the milk. From then on, Larry was like clockwork. When it was time for the next meal, we could depend on him to open the door and demand the goods.
Wool can be soft and lofty, or strong enough for nets and rugs. Renewable and local, there are sheep for almost any climate. You can do more with wool than perhaps any other fiber. Felt it for insulation, hats, and shoes. Build a yurt. Make sweaters, socks, pants, skirts, shirts, or belts. If we can wear it, chances are that wool can be a part of it.
Some people, however, do have a wool allergy. Though, most of the people who get itchy, scratchy, rashy sensations are actually responding to the processing of the wool, not the wool itself. Commercial wool preparation can include a host of harsh chemicals – chemicals to dissolve vegetable matter like hay, washing chemicals, degreasers, carding oils, sizing, and dyes, just to name a few. All of these things, and more, can add to the itch factor.
Processing wool at home provides the opportunity to choose quality wool and also use a processing technique to avoid unnecessary chemicals. Many cottage industries and hobbyist tools are geared toward natural, sustainable wool processing.
Sheep produce a milk that is ideally suited for cheese making. I have heard many people from the Old Country wax poetic about the joys of sheep-milk feta and halloumi. Milking sheep isn’t all that different than milking any other dairy animal. They give considerably less milk than goats and cows, but the high-protein milk is rich and creamy. Diet and breed affect both the quality and quantity of the milk. But don’t stress about the breed so much; as long as the udders are sound, any lactating ewe can give milk.
Manure is necessary to grow plants. Sheep kindly spread their manure around, covering the maximum area possible. This is great for increasing the fertility of a pasture – not so awesome when it comes time to collect it.
The horns of the sheep are a magnificent resource. This is the original plastic, long before we started pulling oil out of the earth. Horn can be molded into a whole range of shapes: spoons, combs, fearsome beer steins, and more. They can be split into layers so fine, they become transparent. Medieval lanterns often had horn windows. They are also the sheep’s main temperature control. The blood flows through the horns, allowing the sheep to stay cool even with their thick woolly coats. So, horns are a valuable resource to the homesteader, and they increase the sheep’s quality of life.
On the other hand, horns can cause a problem if a sheep develops an aggressive attitude or if you wish to show your sheep at a County Fair. Polling (the burning of the horn buds on the young lamb) is a popular solution. However, polling is often inaccurate and needs to be done again, causing further trauma and pain to the animal. A more sensible alternative to polling is to start with a breed that doesn’t grow horns. Some sheep breeds have both horned and polled (no horns) lines.
Sheepskin is very desirable. Tanned into leather, it can be made into gloves, clothing, shoes, bags, rugs, belts, and more. If tanned with the wool on, sheepskin is often used in bedding to relieve chronic pain and prevent bedsores.
The modern-day dedication to lawn care seems to be a throwback to our ancestor’s dedication to sheep. Why else would we invent petroleum-powered sheep in the form of lawnmowers? Ditch the gas guzzling noise maker, and let your sweaters tend the grass.
Lamb is popular, especially around holidays like Easter and Eid. Mutton, the meat from an animal that is over 1 or 2 years old (depending on the country), is often neglected. It is a shame, because it is an incredibly tasty meat, similar to beef. If the animal is raised in a peaceful space that lets it be the most sheepish sheep possible (like a permaculture farm), has a calm slaughter, and if the meat is processed correctly, mutton can be far more tender than beef, even for an animal of higher age. Because I work with heritage sheep, I have never had the greasy, lanolin taste that mutton is famous for. Mutton from a heavy wool producer, like Merino, may be better suited for spicy merguez than a Sunday dinner roast.
Here’s a happy balance between meat and wool production: the lamb is born in the early spring. That first fall, it is shorn of the most luxurious fleece. With a fast-growing fleece, the lamb can be shorn again in the spring and one final time in the early winter. By now, the sheep is about a year and a half old, and called a hogget. The meat is still tender but is starting to get that rich flavor. In this way, you can have three wool harvests and meat ready in time for Christmas dinner.
In return for this bounty, sheep require space, grass, fodder crops, hay, water, and minerals. Choosing the right sheep for your location and resource is the first step to happy sheepherding.
CHOOSING YOUR SHEEP
If you already have your heart set on a breed or certain fiber type, stick with it. However, I firmly believe that the older lineage, tri-purpose breeds are best for a holistic farm. These older breeds are good at providing wool, milk, and meat. They don’t necessarily provide a large amount of any one thing, but what they do provide is ample for the typical homesteader.
Unlike modern sheep that subsist mostly on grasses, an older breed like Icelandic, Finn, or Shetland, is accustomed to eating a larger variety of fodder and getting more nutrition from their food. This opens up all sorts of opportunities for forage fodder. Some breeds, such as Black Welsh Mountain and Icelandic, have a wider tolerance to copper minerals than modern sheep. These breeds make a good choice when sharing a pasture with goats.
A landrace is a lot like a breed, only less standardized and with more genetic diversity and more opportunity for resilience. Diversity is the key to resilience, so having landrace livestock makes sense on a permaculture homestead. If you are looking to sell live lambs, pure breeds will fetch a better price, but these are usually more expensive in the beginning. Landrace often have more vigor and resilience than purebreds. Locally developed landrace are even better.
Before you choose your breed, it might be good to think about how you feel about docking. This usually involves putting a tight elastic band on the lamb’s tail so that its circulation is cut off, which causes the tail to die and fall off. I’m not a fan. However, with many breeds, the tail becomes so coated with feces that it can cause major health problems and poor quality of life for the animal. There is a risk with docking, so if you take this path, vaccinating the animal for tetanus is a must. Alternatively, some breeds have short tails (like Icelandic) and some have the good sense to lift up their tails before getting down to the business of fertilizing the grass. Shetland and Black Welsh Mountain fall into the latter category.
To put it simply, sheep are the heart of my homestead. They provide a diversity of purpose and resilience on the farm that is unmatched by any other single element. Warmth, nourishment, fertility, lawn maintenance, not to mention leather, rawhide, bone, and most importantly, entertainment and affection. It’s no wonder sheep are my favorite member of the homestead.
Here’s the article as a pdf, as seen in Issue 02.
Click the “pop-out” button on the top right corner of the image to get a closer look.