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OUTDOORS The joys of keeping sheep

Outdoor Living
The joys of keeping sheep


Country sights and sounds
Chris Brown


I enjoy watching the sheep dog trials at the Murrisk Pattern day; it is a well-organised event held in a truly beautiful setting under the shadow of the Holy Mountain. The plot is for working dogs, under instruction from their owners, to bring a handful of sheep down the hillside and into a pen; some have more success than others.
There are three things to study: the dog with its ability to listen to commands and use its own instincts to manoeuvre the sheep, the handler who, with a variety of whistles and calls, instructs the dog and the sheep themselves. Sheep are by nature frightened of dogs because they know a dog can attack them, so they stick together and dodge out of the way of sharp canine teeth, ending up, if all goes to plan, in a small pen in front of the crowd.
Whilst watching last year’s event, I overheard a man telling someone that sheep are “stupid animals with no brains at all.” I felt my blood starting to boil. I felt like challenging him, letting him know he was an ignorant bone-head to have such views, because sheep certainly are not stupid!
Sheep are dignified, gentle animals. They may not be spectacular, but they are resilient creatures with a likeable nature. Sheep are no fools; they are sensitive and understand kindness or cruelty well enough. I have the greatest respect for them.
Having cohabited with mankind in a relationship that has lasted for thousands of years, they need us and we need them. If you look to the top of the statue at the Octagon in Westport you’ll see Saint Patrick isn’t alone up there, he has the good sense to have a sheep alongside him for company.

Time for lambs
March and April is the natural time of year for lambs to be born. As the days lengthen and warm up the new grass provides nourishment, which in turn produces good milk in the mothers to satisfy the demands of their hungry youngsters. As the lambs become able to feed themselves without the need for milk in May and June, the grass and other herbage is nutritionally at its best.
Some shepherds have been bringing forward their lambing dates, some as early as January to try to have lambs ready earlier in the year when they fetch a higher price, but this requires far more work at the most difficult time of the year. I think the depths of winter are better suited to the fireside, and besides, nothing is as enjoyable as getting up at first light on a beautiful spring morning to go down the fields to see if there is new life.
Sheep hang out together except when giving birth, when they wander off to a sheltered spot on their own. So, when you count the flock and realise one or two are missing and you spot them in the distance, usually taking cover by an old gorse bush or clump of rushes, you can be fairly sure when you get there you will find a proud mum cleaning her young.
The lambs themselves are simply beautiful, and I’m always amazed as to how quickly they manage to get onto their gangly legs and go in search of the ewe’s udder for that first important drink of milk.
So what will happen to this crop of handsome animals? The best female lambs will be sold as ewe lambs, mothers of the future, always keeping a few beauties for the home flock, while the rest will become butchers’ lambs, providing the finest food to the grateful (?) public. 

Next time The cost of food