Babies. Boy do we have babies. We have 12 ewes of breeding age, and we ended up with 21 lambs, born from March 2nd through March 23rd. Five sets of twins, two sets of triplets(!), and 5 singles. We weren’t expecting the triplets. One mama, Cocoa, is doing just fine with her three, but the second mama, Maggie, has rejected one of hers. So we have one bottle baby. Of the 21 lambs, 17 of them are male. SEVENTEEN. Seriously?! We have no idea why our sex ratio is so skewed, though something very similar happened the first year we had lamb babies (10 out of 13 were male), and they too were also all born in March.
For those who haven’t been following along, and wonder what the heck kind of sheep those are (people mistake them for goats all the time), we raise American Blackbelly’s. However, we also have some Soay sheep in the mix, in smaller percentages. Both are “hair” sheep, which means sheep that don’t have the thick wool that the story book sheep have. No sheering required. They shed their coats in the late spring.
Why Blackbelly? Well, lots of reasons. When adding new animals to the farm, we look for breeds that are as self sufficient and need as little human intervention as possible.
Blackbelly’s have excellent disease resistance and parasite tolerance. Many owners don’t worm or vaccinate. We have a closed flock (we’re not introducing new animals in to the heard from outside farms) and so we don’t treat, unless there is an obvious problem. So far, there hasn’t been. This makes them VERY low maintenance. This is somewhat dictated by climate, so your results may vary.
Blackbelly’s are excellent mothers. None of this “go out and check the pregnant ewes every two hours in the middle of the night for birthing difficulties” business. We have yet to have any birthing issues in three years. Females will generally throw a single their first year breeding, and then twins after that, if they are in adequate condition. Our entire routine in the spring is to go out in the morning and count babies to see if there are any new ones. If there are, we try to get ahold of them in the first 24 hours, before they gain much speed, to check on the sex. After that, we just keep a count a couple of times a day and make sure everyone seems to be thriving and nursing. They normally give birth out in the pasture, even when warm dry shelter is available. We’ve had babies born at the end of December, and they were hale and hearty, despite the cold. Birthing is almost always during daylight hours. We’ve had two bottle babies in three years (not bad for 50 lambs).
Blackbelly’s don’t require tail docking. Seriously. Ewwww. I know it can be a necessity with some breeds in some places, but it isn’t an issue with these guys. No tail docking means no wounds open to infection = less disease issues. By the way, we were once told by a guide in China, tail up = goat, tail down = sheep, in case you ever see an animal and you aren’t sure which it is.
Blackbelly’s have a diet more like a goat. Having been raised originally on Barbados, an island with limited pastures, the sheep that thrived were the ones who learned to eat a diverse diet of not just grasses, but weeds and woody browse as well. They can survive on land that is a lot more marginal than would be suited for most sheep. This means they really thrive on well managed pasture, but also do well for weed clean up, if that is an issue for you. They have definitely helped us clean up the star thistle issue we had in our back pasture (along with additional control measures).
The meat is really really good. I’ve had people who claim to “not really like lamb” try our lamb and love it. The lack of a big wooly coat means lower lanolin, which in turn is thought to sweeten the flavor of the meat. You can also harvest them up to two years before the meat starts to become more mutton-like and strongly flavored. We think its really really excellent.
American Blackbelly males have been bred for horns (they were crossed with Rambouillet sheep to introduce that big ram curl). The females often have short horns as well (a pro or a con, depending on your perspective – we like the horns as it adds an additional defense option should a predator get into the pasture). That means that there is an additional market, not just for the meat, but for horns. Rams can be sold to private hunting clubs, sometimes at a premium. Though truth be told, I prefer to sell them to folks who want to start their own herds.
Blackbelly’s are fertile year round, if the conditions are right. Gestation is 5 months, and we figured the mother’s wouldn’t rebreed until the babies were at least 8 weeks old, but we had one female get pregnant again 41 days after giving birth to a single lamb, and another at 48 days, just before we pulled the rams. The first year, we left the rams in with the ewes, and we had babies spread out from the end of December to the middle of May. Since we didn’t want babies in December, January or February, this last year we pulled the males, and reintroduced them in October.
Blackbelly’s, because of their smaller size, are cheap to feed. We keep ours on pasture for about 8 months of the year, until the grass stops growing, and then feed them a grass/late cut alfalfa hay in the winter time (sheep don’t do well on early cut alfalfa. They will just pick through the stems looking for the leaves, and leave a LOT of waste behind). We fed our herd of 19 sheep through the winter here (granted, we have mild winters) on about 2 tons of hay. Another half ton for additional insurance would have been nice, but we were able to squeak it out with two tons, even with 12 of the 14 ewes having lambs. Our grass starts to grow a bit in March, and really takes off about the first of April (I made note last year of the date I heard the first lawn mower – funny how when you start raising grazing animals, the whole world starts to be defined by forage availability).
The other pro that isn’t often mentioned when people are talking about Blackbelly’s, but that we’ve found to true is that they are really really quiet. We have a herd of more traditional sheep across the creek from us, and we hear them crying all the time, for one reason or another. We rarely hear ours, and if we do, we know to go look and see what’s up, because generally someone has gotten into trouble, or is missing a baby. That’s really nice when you have neighbors close by.
The cons of keeping Blackbelly’s are mainly two in number. First, they are a smaller breed. Even when fully grown you’ll be lucky if the rams reach 100 lbs. So you aren’t going to get the same amount of meat out of one that you would from the traditional Suffolk or Dorper, or even a Katahdin (another popular variety of hair sheep).
Second, because these sheep were left to their own devices, for the most part, on an island, for a long time, they have a lot of natural wild instincts. This means they can jump 5 ft straight up in the air when startled. My husband calls them “sheepalope”. While you can train them to be comfortable around you, and train them to treats (OMG, train them to treats – it will make your life SO much easier when you need to move them), they will never be a warm fuzzy family pet that comes running when it sees you. Bean, last year’s bottle baby, is just as wild as her siblings, despite getting handled by me up to 6 times a day when she was young. Cocoa, the matriarch of our herd, is really tame and unafraid of people (and will follow you anywhere for a cookie), but even she won’t tolerate being petted.
In short, we LOVE these sheep. They are easy to keep and care for, light on the land, and excellent eating. Plus, they are simply stunning. We spend a lot of time just watching them, enjoying their antics, and appreciating their beauty.
Here’s a link to a video showing the birth of the second of two boys a few weeks ago. The other ewe in this video (with twins of her own) is the mother of the ewe in labor. She stayed with her daughter the whole time, and kept a close eye on the dogs to make sure they weren’t too close (they were on the other side of a fence). Amazing the connection between these two, that we would have never witnessed if we had put her in a birthing stall and kept her separated from the rest of the herd.
There are a couple of more videos of the antics of the babies if you look on my youtube channel.
Miles Away Farm Blog © 2015, where we spent part of our time writing this blog post with a week old lamb in our lap, and enjoyed every minute of it.