Sheep have had a lot of bad press recently. A headline in the Independent tells us there are “Too many sheep in Wales to aim for net zero emissions.” Can we really blame our woolly friends for climate change? I think not. I’m a strong believer that farming methods can be adapted to produce zero carbon food (or even food that sequesters carbon in its production) – namely by building healthy soil and including trees in our systems. With this in mind, I’d like to tell you a bit about our sheep, our current shepherding methods and the land designs we’re implementing.
After spending 10 years as a strict vegetarian, it was a total surprise to find myself farming sheep. What really changed my mind (and diet) was the realisation that whether I was veggie, vegan or a meat eater- my eating would have an impact on the planet and its inhabitants. Only by fully engaging with my food would I be able to see that impact and minimise its negative effects. So at the moment we do pretty much all of our shepherding ourselves, by hand and naturally; from tupping to lambing, shearing to spinning, pasture care to tree planting and slaughter to butchery.
Grazing is central to our land management system. The sheep’s primary function is as a composter; keeping our pasture areas healthy by eating the grass and depositing nutritious compost. The key to healthy grazing (which builds topsoil) as opposed to over grazing (which causes soil erosion) is regular movement of livestock. To achieve this we use a temporary electric fence to partition off areas of grazing and we move our sheep once a week. This allows grasses and herbs to regrow in between grazing, it provides a stable diet for the animals and reduces parasites with in our flock. A further bonus of using electric fence is that it allows us to establish trees and shrubs within the paddocks; creating shelter, shade, stability, sheep forage and food/fuel for humans. Our long term plan is to create small paddocks surrounded by diverse, edible, stock proof hedges. Our flock will graze among fruit and nut trees, increasing our net outputs and feeding the trees with their dung.
Wool used to be central to our local economy. It was even more valuable than meat, which was seen as a by product of the wool industry. These days it has a low commercial value. We shear our sheep by hand in May/June. It takes an average of an hour for an untrained hand (like mine) to shear a sheep with hand shears. This seems pretty slow compared to the time taken by professional shearer but I like to take my time; enjoying the close contact with the animal, taking the opportunity to check it over and see how its doing, ensuring that my sheep are as comfortable as possible throughout the process.
I didn’t have time to do much with the wool. Luckily my Mum is a prolific knitter and was interested in learning to spin. So I sent her off with a few fleeces and a spinning wheel. You can see the results for yourselves below.