Key to organic sheep success is minimal intervention at lambing

MINIMAL INTERFERENCE and rotational grazing are the keys to profitable organic sheep production on one Borders unit.

Duncan Shell, who is based in Abbey St Bathans, near Duns, told visitors to an SAC organic sheep open day at his Godscroft unit that the policy was to leave sheep to get on with it as much as possible.

“The key is to have sheep which can thrive under these conditions and which require minimal assistance.” Ewes on the unit are set stocked about 10 days before lambing in mid-April, with multiple bearing ewes stocked at about 12.5 ewes/ha (5 ewes/acre) and single carrying ewes stocked at about 37-49 ewes/ha (15-20 ewes/acre).

To move towards a system which requires as little human interference as possible, Mr Shell has recently begun crossing the existing flock of Lleyn-based ewes with easycare tups, in a bid to breed a wool-shedding sheep which has a slightly larger frame than a Lleyn.

“I’m aiming for a ewe which is 37.5% Lleyn and 62.5% easycare. I’ve selected Lleyns for easycare characteristics, such as ease of lambing. But there are management issues related to wool which I think can be eliminated.

“One of these is that when ewes are heavily pregnant they can get overheated, even when outwintered. This can be particularly exacerbated close to birth, so heavily wooled ewes may often choose to lamb in an exposed, windy spot to stay cooler.” Mr Shell believes this means lambs can get chilled quickly. Wool-less ewes will, hopefully, choose to lamb in more sheltered spots, improving lamb survival.

Ewes and lambs are left in their lambing fields for between four and six weeks, although ewes scanned for multiples which end up rearing only one lamb are moved out into single groups. Ram lambs are left entire and all lambs have their tails left on.

This year, ewes will be outwintered on forage crops, such as forage rape and turnips. “This should see them through until about 10-15 days before lambing.”

With all replacements home-bred, including rams, Mr Shell said it was essential to retain only the best.

“We only keep replacements from ewes which have reared twins and mark any lambs from those ewes which have a problem – a difficult lambing, large teats or whatever.

“I am also using Suffolk tups on some ewes to ensure no lambs are kept out of ewes which have a history of problems.”