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picking a breed of sheep from a narrowed list

 
Posts: 13
Location: Finland
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We're getting ready to get sheep within the next few years, and I'm not sure how to pick just one breed.  I'm not looking for advice on which breed anyone thinks is best.  I want to know how to go about deciding for myself which breed or breeds to maintain in my circumstances.  If I wanted to just figure out which sheep breed of an already narrowed down list best suits me and my land, do I get wethers of different breeds and then later pursue breeding stock?  That won't give me an on site comparison of lambing and milking.  How small of a scale can I test that?  How many sheep of a breed is a reasonable sample size to know if that's the breed(s) I most want to work with?

Specifics, in case an example is helpful:  my top two sheep breeds of interest are Finns and Icelandics, but Shetland and Black Welsh Mountain Sheep also keep looking desirable.  Of the three things sheep are sold for, I am interested in wool primarily, milk secondarily, and meat only incidentally.  Winters have permanent snow cover and below -30 C is uncommon but usually occurs yearly.  Summers vary from very wet to dry.  The animals will be pastured in mostly forested areas, rotationally grazed (browsed?), keeping rams separate to control which ewes they breed.
 
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Do you intend to sell breeding stock of pure breed, registered animals?

If not, why don't you try something similar to what Joseph Lofthouse is doing with plants?
https://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/landrace-gardening-survival-zbcz1306

Buy whatever healthy animals you can get your hands on quite cheaply, breed the best no matter what breed and eat the rest...
How many animals do you intend to keep? How many breeding flocks?
 
pollinator
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I'm reading that Shropshire sheep are said to be particularly suitable for grazing in an orchard or a forest since they are presumably the least likely to damage the trees.

https://www.shropshire-sheep.co.uk/sheep-in-trees/
 
master pollinator
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You really have to try them out.

My first flock of sheep was Western Sheep, also called Montadales and I really liked them, but they threw singles and were hard to buy as I live in Maine. Of the other sheep breeds, I have had about every breed there is, but ultimately I had Corriedales the most, just because they really worked on my farm.

With milking be a secondary concern, your sheep breeds will be quite limited.
 
pollinator
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I have been doing my own research on sheep breeds to determine what breeds I would want. I haven't gotten any of my own yet though.

Purebred finns are supposed to average 3 lambs per ewe per lambing. This requires a careful feeding program to meet the needs of the ewes, i.e. they will need grain during late gestation and early lactation to prevent illness. Finnsheep are often cross bred to create an ewe with high prolificacy, but lower maintenance than the purebred finn.

Icelandics are supposed to average twins with every lambing. Iceland does not grow many grains so icelandic sheep should be able to raise lambs on pasture alone and maintain themselves and a pregnanacy with only hay, no grain.

Shetlands are much smaller than the other breeds, and are expected to have singles most of the time. They should be the lowest maintenance.

I would recomend crossbreeding, probabaly start with the icelandics as they are midway between the others in prolificacy and maintenace needs. Decide you want smaller sheep? Get a shetland ram and keep cross bred ewe lambs. Want more lambs? Get a finn ram and keep the crossbred ewe lambs. Want more milk? Try crossing in an east freisian.

I would skip the black welsh mountain simply because the other breeds are all shortailed sheep and the welsh mountain is not.

Note that while all these breeds are wool breeds. None of them produce a commercially valuable fleece. The wool from these breeds is only valuable if you have the skill and equipment to turn raw wool to a finished product.
 
pollinator
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<<<  I want to know how to go about deciding for myself which breed >>>
   Make a list of your priorities. There's no one breed of sheep that will fit every trait you want, so you will need to figure your highest requirement and then compromise from there. You've already said that wool is your highest priority, but the breeds you've listed aren't the best wool sheep. So perhaps you need to either change your top priority, change the breeds you're considering, accept the idea of lesser quality wool....or acknowledge that there is some other higher priority, such as visual appeal, nostalgic appeal, historical interest, etc.

<<<How many sheep of a breed is a reasonable sample size to know if that's the breed(s) I most want to work with? >>>
   I don't know the recommended number, but I see enough variation with my own sheep that I'd  have to have at least 6 to get an idea of the breed, assuming that you've already researched the breed.

Since you have cold winters, that rules out the hair breeds. With meat a low priority, that means that you don't care about flavor, feed to weight gain ratio, fat layering, muscling, carcass quality. So all that info comparison of the various breeds can be skipped.

You mentioned milk. They all produce milk, but not in great quantities. So it depends upon
exactly how much milk you want and how much effort you're willing to put into it. The East Friesian is the most common dairy sheep. They produce 3-4 times as much milk that non-dairy breeds. If I were to be chained to milking a flock twice day, I'd want to get the most milk for my effort. But if you're just looking for a little milk, any breed will do. I separate my lambs at night, milk first thing in the morning, then turn the ewes and lambs out together. After the first 2-3 months I don't bother milking at all. This fits my own needs.

Two factors I would also suggest considering --
...cost. For me this is a big one. Just how much do I want to invest per sheep? $50? $500? I can buy mix breed hair sheep for $50 each or Dorpers or East Friesian for $500 and up. Because I have predation issues, I go with the $50 mixbreeds just case a dog gets past my guardian donkey. Boy, I'd really hate to lose 10-15 sheep at $500 a head!  
...availability. Is the breed already in your area? If not, how far will you have to travel to get it? Or would you have to ship it in? If the breed isn't already in your area, then you will have to go through the whole hassle again when you want to add a new breeding stock, like a replacement ram. I opt to buy local. I really don't want to spend a whole day away from the farm to pick up a ewe or ram that's a 3 hour drive away. Worse yet, having to ship it in.
 
M. Crex
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Thank you for all the thoughtful/thought provoking replies.

I've crossed the Black Welsh Mountain off my list many times, but then something makes me reconsider.  Of the other three, availability is in the order of Finns, Icelandic, Shetland.  Forest pastured animals used to be common here, but it's now an endangered biotope.  So I know that at least Finns have historically flourished in those conditions

I'm not looking to sell wool to a commercial outfit but to fiber artists, to create value added products and personal use.  Cross-breeding would decrease the value of the wool.  Each of these three has a wide color expression range (not something of interest to most commerical outfits but a boon to me).  The black on a Black Welsh Mountain sheep is one of the things that make me not want to forget about it.  A black Finn, Icelandic, or Shetland, is dark grey by comparison.  I have the most experience with Finn wool, as it's the most available, but that very same availability makes me wonder if a less local breed would find a better place in the market.

The barriers on selling food in the EU are too great for me to overcome in the near future, so the milk and meat from culls will be for personal use, family, friends and neighbors.  Finns were originally an all-purpose breed, but recent focus of local breeding has been more on wool and then meat.  There seems to be more people around still milking Icelandics, another originally all purpose breed.  I've heard enough reports of decent milking from Shetland and Black Welsh Mountain, meaning better than average for a non-dairy breed.  I've never considered the dairy breeds since they probably wouldn't be very resilient in this climate.  As far as meat goes, the palate of most of the prospective eaters prefer mutton to the tasteless (<-- their word) lambs.

It's unclear how many sheep the land can handle until some sheep get on it.  Years ago, it was a small dairy cow operation.  We've asked the previous owners how many animals they had, but the remaining family was unable to remember.  There are 21 stalls in the open stall milking barn if that's a clue.  Previous pasture land is now forested.  Some of the forest was harvested and replanted too recently to run animals in just yet.  We're on 5 hectares.  We have a verbal agreement to buy 1.5 ha. adjoining forested land at an unknown date in the future.  Down the road, there's a chance we could make an agreement with the owner of the neighboring forest to run animals there (assuming we can show that the value of our trees hasn't been comprised), but that's getting too far ahead.

I'm worried that the Finns and even the Icelandics will be too prolific for me.  I'm disappointed that the Finns are usually polled (I think all Finns in the U.S. are polled, but there are horned strains available in Finland).

With all these thoughts, I'm still unsure how many sheep one needs to get a feel for sheep.  Maybe it's an irrational fear that I'll get six Finns and by the following spring the population will have grown beyond what the land can support and what friends and family can consume.
 
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What are your priorities and in the highest to lowest priority?

Can you search online or ask around to find out what is in your area that you'd be willing to travel to buy stock? And of these, which are raising their animals closest to what you would be giving them on your property?

Study your property and decide how you will be using it. Where will infrastructure be? Where is there water available (natural running) and where could you easily get water access?

5hectare is about 12 acres. Depending on how productive it is you could raise a lot of sheep. If you want them in forested areas how much greenery is available there? Is this like picturesque forest with grass and branches way high and lots of light? Or is it regrowth trees with lots of mixed age trees and low branches and brush. Sheep will browse plenty but still need lots of grass and leafy roughage. I grew up with dairy goats and they seemed to browse for certain weeds through the grass rather than graze much grass at all. Sheep browse, graze, browse, graze,... The sheep will still kill young trees deemed tasty. But they seem to deem trees in general much less tasty than goats which will ramble for acres and then girdle a seemingly random tree.

I don't know what all would be available to you in finland. But given the climate I would definitely think European shorttail breeds as you've started already.
If you don't have a market for lambs and aren't planning to eat much lamb or mutton then I would definitely recommend starting with some wethers. You should be able to find wethers fairly easily and will be cheaper than breeding stock. You could get two or three shetlands, icelandics, and finns then see which ones you like the best. If some you don't like at all you can eat or sell on then invest in a couple ewes of what you did like. From the local breeders find out if they'd be willing to loan you a ram or let you bring your couple ewes over for breeding.
I would suggest against finns because they are bred for year round breeding and to produce litters of lambs. They are a production breed. One one hand that means they milk well to feed the lambs. On the other, now you have 2 to 6 lambs per ewe. And if you pull them to milk the ewe for your table are you going to invest in replacer for the lambs? And are you willing to take that time investment for bottle feeding or training them to a nipple bucket?
All sheep make milk, some more than others. You can milk any of them. If you find some sheep you like you can always select for milking.
One thought would be in your breeder searching ask if they sell cull ewes. Usually ewes a few years old that they are cycling out of the flock for younger ewes but that are still likely good stock and will give ya a few years of lambs. And some might be nice young ewes being culled for throwing singles and the producer wants twins and triplets.

Also, why do you want horns? Sheep are being bred to be polled because they are easier to handle. Rams with horns get more rambunctious as a general rule and are more likely to get into scuffles with other sheep and people. Just be sure you are ready to man handle the animals you will have because eventually they all need it for one reason or another.

If you are interested in selling the wool then find local guilds or groups that meet up for spinning etc crafts. Find out what they like and would buy.
Also, while searching for breeders ask about their shearers. Here it is hard to find shearers and once you do they jerk ya around if it's less than 100 to be shorn. Find out rates, usually ewes and wethers are one price and rams are double that, and setup/travel cost. And when they shear. Here shearers put together their calendar in January and you'd better have your dates you'd like to be shearing in to them or you're out of luck chuck.

 
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M. Crex wrote:The black on a Black Welsh Mountain sheep is one of the things that make me not want to forget about it.



At risk of going off topic, that reminded me of the Black Hebrideans that are popular for conservation grazing here.  They are so black I found them really tricky to photograph because they just look like little black holes that all the light sinks into!
 
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Location: Northern Puget Sound, Zone 8A
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Crt Jakhel wrote:I'm reading that Shropshire sheep are said to be particularly suitable for grazing in an orchard or a forest since they are presumably the least likely to damage the trees.

https://www.shropshire-sheep.co.uk/sheep-in-trees/



Can't find anyone in the PNW (with a website) that sells this breed.  And the couple that are listed on the American Shropshire association website I'd have to call, assuming they even still exist/sell Shropshires.
 
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