Raising Sheep With Traditional Farming Methods

Learn how to raise sheep using a traditional farming method called hill farming.

| March/April 2015

For a small island, Great Britain certainly has more than its fair share of sheep. According to the National Sheep Association (NSA), there are thought to be more sheep breeds in the United Kingdom than in any other country in the world. Breeds like the Welsh Mountain sheep, the Border Leicester and the Cheviot are success stories. Other breeds including the Teeswater and the North Ronaldsay are rare, and rarer still is the Boreray sheep, sadly on the critically endangered list and hailing from the small island of Boreray off the northwest coast of Scotland.

The same can be said for several breeds in North America, including the Saint Croix, Karakul, and Jacob on the Livestock Conservancy’s “Threatened” list, and breeds like the Florida Cracker and Hog Island on their “Critical” list. A desire for larger, more productive meat sheep has led to the decline of many smaller breeds. However, one type of farming in Britain continues to sustain these small breeds, and that is “hill farming.”

The hills are alive

Hill farming is an agricultural practice that takes place mainly in Wales, Scotland and some parts of northern England. Sheep are the main livestock farmed in these regions, simply because in mountainous places there is little else in the way of livestock that will thrive. In Wales, we have several sheep breeds that are well suited for the land—mostly small, hardy animals, bred to cope with life in the mountains. Steep hillsides, harsh weather and rough grazing land have meant that sheep farming has long been the primary source of income for most farmers in the area. A hill farmer may own several thousand acres of land but have little need for state-of-the-art machinery since much of the land is often too rough or too hilly to cultivate.

In this respect, hill farming has changed little over the generations, and many of the old traditions remain. Farmers still gather together to bring the sheep down from the mountains for routine care such as ear marking, shearing or separating those to be sold. With several hundred head of sheep—and between five and 10 men, each with two or three working dogs—gathering days are hard work for both men and dogs. But it is also a time of laughter and camaraderie. At one time there would have been many more sheep spending all year up on the mountainsides. But in recent years, farmers are being encouraged to either reduce the number of sheep on the mountains or to take them off the mountain at certain times of the year in order to reduce environmental impact.

We tend to imagine that our beautiful mountains are pristine, natural environments, untouched by the human hand when in fact sheep have largely shaped our mountains—at least in terms of the flora and fauna. Without sheep, the mountains would have far more shrubs and small trees. It is for this reason that recent environmental schemes have restricted sheep numbers on the mountains and instead encouraged smaller flock sizes more evenly spread out.

The effort to achieve a more balanced “agricultural ecosystem” has in some instances led to an increase in the number of Welsh Black cattle on the mountains. Far from being a newfangled idea, it seems that this may be a resurrection of a traditional “mixed” farming approach. For the small-scale homesteader, this could provide the opportunity to implement a few head of heritage cattle as part of a rotation system to keep pastures healthy. The hardy Welsh cattle are able to eat the tough mountain grasses, but they avoid the shrubs, thus balancing out the way the upland sheep tend to graze.

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