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LBlankenship
03-05-2013, 02:06 AM
I am working on a rural fantasy setting that's loosely based on 13th-to-14th century Europe. Climate is New England-ish. My story is going to center on a small village where sheep are the major industry. I am assuming they have sturdy, fairly independent sheep and big herding/guarding dogs along the lines of Maremmas to hold the wolves off.

I figure they will be busy with lambing in the spring, shearing before the summer solstice, and then... when is a good time to sell off those spring lambs? For meat, breeding or otherwise.

Because I assume there's a dynamic balance of how many sheep a shepherd knows he can handle, has room for in the pasturage available to him -- assuming he can keep wolves and disease from thinning the flock for him -- and how many lambs he needs to keep his flock a good size.

And when's a good time to sell off your surplus and/or do your own culling to stock up on mutton for the winter? October? November? As needed?

Any general advice or anecdotes about low-tech shepherding is welcome too. Thanks!

King Neptune
03-05-2013, 02:48 AM
I am working on a rural fantasy setting that's loosely based on 13th-to-14th century Europe. Climate is New England-ish. My story is going to center on a small village where sheep are the major industry. I am assuming they have sturdy, fairly independent sheep and big herding/guarding dogs along the lines of Maremmas to hold the wolves off.

I figure they will be busy with lambing in the spring, shearing before the summer solstice, and then... when is a good time to sell off those spring lambs? For meat, breeding or otherwise.

Because I assume there's a dynamic balance of how many sheep a shepherd knows he can handle, has room for in the pasturage available to him -- assuming he can keep wolves and disease from thinning the flock for him -- and how many lambs he needs to keep his flock a good size.

And when's a good time to sell off your surplus and/or do your own culling to stock up on mutton for the winter? October? November? As needed?

Any general advice or anecdotes about low-tech shepherding is welcome too. Thanks!

Generally, slaughtering was done as needed with a preference for Fall, but without refrigeration they weren't going to stock up on meat.

Slaughtering or selling excess lambs would normally be done in the Spring.

Was there a market for wool or shearling skins or for woolen goods? Until a few decades ago the money in raising sheep was in the wool, and that had been true for a very long time.

Canotila
03-05-2013, 12:18 PM
Herding dogs =/= livestock guardian dogs.

Herding dogs have strong prey drive. It's a truncated hunting instinct, where they use all the same behaviors as a dog hunting prey except the part where they kill.

A livestock guardian dog like maremma, kuvasz, great Pyrenees, Central Asian shepherd, Tibetan mastiff, etc. has no prey drive. Instead they operate on a very beefed up defense drive. They find a high point and hang out where they can keep an eye on everyone and any incoming threats.

The role of dogs in sheep herding can be pretty major, and different breeds of dogs were made to compliment the breeds of sheep in their locale, and also the local sheep husbandry needs.

Beaucerons are a French herding breed that acts as a living fence. They don't drove or cut individual sheep like a border collie or rough collie. Instead their job is to run in circles around the herd and prevent them from wandering. They do have a good defense drive too, though I don't know how much good they'd be against wolves.

Some herding breeds are drovers, made to move sheep over long distances. They'd be utilized in places where the sheep need to move around a lot to find good graze, and also have to be driven a long distance to market. Scotland is one place where this was the norm.

Are your sheep kept in fences? In England they'd built portable woven hurdles out of hazel to put up around herds as they were driven from place to place.

Are they free range, more like the sheep in the Pyrenian mountains? Do they need to be driven at any point in the year? To be sold? Sheared? Where? How far? Knowing the answers to these questions will help.

The big livestock guardian dogs are bears. I have a kuvasz as a long term house guest at the moment, and holy dang wow she is literally the most physically powerful dog I have ever worked with. And that includes owning two Russian wolfhounds, and having worked a lot with German shepherds from DDR and Czech border patrol lines.

Buffysquirrel
03-05-2013, 04:06 PM
What about the goats that fall over at any hint of danger? Much more fun to write about.

The preservation of meat didn't start with refrigeration. Salting and smoking are perfectly viable methods. There's actually an excellent description in one of the Little House books of how meat was smoked.

There was also the wolf guard, when the sheep were brought down off the hills and placed in sheep folds, basically corrals, sometimes permanent structures made of stone, and the men would protect them from wolves. For some of the medieval period in England at least, it was customary to slaughter most animals at the onset of winter because the system of agriculture did not create a food surplus to carry them through the winter period.

Your ability to sell your animals and other produce would be severely limited in winter because the roads weren't passable. Goods and animals were sold through markets that were held in the market towns. The most important markets--the hiring fairs--were held on the Quarter Days.

waylander
03-05-2013, 04:47 PM
One of the most important question for a sheep farmer is which ewes he is going to put to the ram. This happens in autumn, the ewes that are not going to be bred from are sold. This tends to happen at the end of summer.

LBlankenship
03-05-2013, 04:49 PM
Are they free range, more like the sheep in the Pyrenian mountains? Do they need to be driven at any point in the year? To be sold? Sheared? Where? How far? Knowing the answers to these questions will help.


More on the free range side -- this is a thinly populated area, still quite wild. I'm thinking the sheep spend the winter in folds and/or stone-walled pastures and come summer they're moved out to the hillsides. Lambing would happen in the near pastures, and possibly the shearing too.

There will be some driving to do, but not over significant distances.

With the dogs, I'm trying to get a feel for how much you can leave the sheep alone out in the summer pastures, knowing there are wolves out there. Maybe the guard dogs will need to be a different breed (inasmuch as "breeds" even exist) than the sheepdogs, but they might still be necessary. For some chunk of the year, the shepherds will be out there with the sheep, but they might need to come downhill and help with the haying or something.

@Buffysquirrel, yes that part of the Little House books has been stuck in my mind for a long time :)

Canotila
03-06-2013, 12:39 AM
More on the free range side -- this is a thinly populated area, still quite wild. I'm thinking the sheep spend the winter in folds and/or stone-walled pastures and come summer they're moved out to the hillsides. Lambing would happen in the near pastures, and possibly the shearing too.

There will be some driving to do, but not over significant distances.

With the dogs, I'm trying to get a feel for how much you can leave the sheep alone out in the summer pastures, knowing there are wolves out there. Maybe the guard dogs will need to be a different breed (inasmuch as "breeds" even exist) than the sheepdogs, but they might still be necessary. For some chunk of the year, the shepherds will be out there with the sheep, but they might need to come downhill and help with the haying or something.

@Buffysquirrel, yes that part of the Little House books has been stuck in my mind for a long time :)

People have maintained different breeds for working purposes for thousands of years. The Pyrenian shepherd and great Pyrenees are a good example of two very old breeds created alongside one another to do two separate jobs. One works as the shepherd's partner cutting and driving sheep. The other lives among the sheep, protecting them from harm. You're right though, that back in those days the working varieties were more landrace types. Central Asian shepherds and Caucasian ovtcharkas today are still very much a type vs. a homogenized breed.

If wolves are a real threat and it's that wild of a country they'd likely leave someone with the sheep at all times. Consider, these animals are their livelihood. Their food, clothes, and ability to barter/make money. The guard dogs make it a lot easier for very few people to tend very large flocks and keep them safe from predators though. The number of big dogs you need depends on the number of sheep they're expected to guard and how much area they have to cover.

From what I understand the pastoral shepherds on the steppes didn't use herding dogs. Instead they had livestock guardian dogs and moved their sheep from horseback. If anyone knows for sure feel free to butt in because it's been hard to find concrete information about.

Edit:

Something to keep in mind about guarding the sheep in summer. Wolves have pups in the spring. August, which is prime haying time, is also right about the same time the young wolves are out and learning to hunt. Leaving the dogs alone to guard the sheep at that point probably isn't a great strategy, since there will likely be increased predation attempts.

melindamusil
03-06-2013, 02:47 AM
A few years ago, when I was traveling through Ireland (where they have plenty of sheep), a tour guide told me that farmers/shepherds would use some sort of non-toxic ink to make dots on the sides of their ewes. They each had codes, and the number of dots or pattern of dots would indicate if that ewe had been mated, with whom she had been mated, if she was pregnant, if she was carrying one or two or three lambs, and so on. It was a remarkably detailed system.

As far as smoking and salting meat... in some 1700s whaling or military ships, the men would actually soak their meat in water to try and draw out the salt before eating it. It definitely preserved the meat, but it wasn't necessarily "tasty"!

ClareGreen
03-06-2013, 02:57 AM
My first spring in a more vertical part of Wales, I was stunned to see sheep and lambs in a field with numbers painted on their sides. On thinking about it, though, it made a lot of sense - it was just bizarre seeing lambs 3, 5 and 16 debating who got to stand on the tree stump while sheep 3, 5 and 16 grazed nearby.

Canotila
03-06-2013, 03:39 AM
As far as smoking and salting meat... in some 1700s whaling or military ships, the men would actually soak their meat in water to try and draw out the salt before eating it. It definitely preserved the meat, but it wasn't necessarily "tasty"!

One of my friends tried making salt horse stew. He thought that the volume of the broth would dilute the salt and it would turn out nicely seasoned. Then he took a bite and said it was like licking Lot's wife.

LBlankenship, you might check out this video. It's an interview with an old time hurdle maker. They were used as portable lightweight fencing for grazing sheep. I imagine they were pretty handy for keeping specific ewes with specific rams, or separate, or whatever. He does a good demonstration and feeds in a lot of neat terminology.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U08AiNxq17Q

veinglory
03-06-2013, 03:52 AM
For most places, throughout most of history, the main sheep protector was a shepherd because the sheep were on common grazing areas. So they didn't just need protection from predators, but also to be taken to the grazing area and brought back as required.

dirtsider
03-06-2013, 04:29 AM
You should take a look at the Howell Living History Farm website. Granted, the farm covers a totally different time period but they hand-shear their sheep as well as have herding dogs come in for their shearing event. They might be able to answer at least some of your questions.

Saanen
03-06-2013, 06:32 AM
Keep in mind also that there are a ton of different sheep breeds. Some have fast-growing wool and need to be sheared twice a year, some don't have wool at all (hair sheep, raised for meat), some show intense flocking instinct, some don't flock at all. Different breeds of sheep were developed in different areas for specific needs, with a lot of 'general purpose' breeds that weren't particularly large and didn't have particularly fine wool, but which were ideal for families who needed a breed that produced wool, meat, and surplus lambs while also being well-adapted to local climate. So you might decide what your people needed and make up not just a breed of guard or herding dog, but a breed of local sheep.

I used to keep Jacob sheep. They're very goat-like in many ways. They don't flock, they're small and a bit flighty, and they're very hardy. When I went to a shearing class to learn how to shear, we practiced on some breed (not sure what) that looked ENORMOUS to me, like ponies, and which flocked together like they were being pushed around by Babe. It was a weird experience after my Jacobs. :)

Al Stevens
03-06-2013, 07:36 AM
The title of this thread reminds me of a joke...

shaldna
03-06-2013, 04:46 PM
I am assuming they have sturdy, fairly independent sheep and big herding/guarding dogs along the lines of Maremmas to hold the wolves off.

Probably not.

It's different instincts. Most herding dogs are collie type dogs - border collies are used here for preference because they are smart, fast and have a herding instinct.

A dog with a guarding instinct is not going to be a good herder generally. A lot of farmers I know have an alsation, or, more commonly, a couple of jack russells - people who've never had one will laugh, but if you had 50 jacks you could take over the world. It's a lot of dog to cram inot a small body, and they raise a hell of a lot of noise.

It's common here to put other animals in with the sheep - donkeys are popular because they make a hell of a lot of noise when startled. Increasingly llamas are getting popular for the same function because they don't have the same lungworm problem that donkeys do.


Because I assume there's a dynamic balance of how many sheep a shepherd knows he can handle, has room for in the pasturage available to him -- assuming he can keep wolves and disease from thinning the flock for him -- and how many lambs he needs to keep his flock a good size.

One person can easily keep a couple of hundred sheep as a full time job. They are pretty low maintance. The exception comes when it's lambing and shearing - you'll find that folks either hire help in - there are shearers who go from farm to farm all season - or they team up with other local farmers to help each other out. A skilled shearer can do a sheep in a couple of minutes - have a look on youtube I'm sure you'll find some traditional competitions there. We still have them here.


And when's a good time to sell off your surplus and/or do your own culling to stock up on mutton for the winter? October? November? As needed?

Lambs to sale at market when weaned - late spring through summer. Culling done as and when required. Generally you'll not cull surplus stock unless you are going to eat it, otherwise it's a waste of food and lost income.

Note, the breed of sheep will also dictate certain other care requirements - for instance, if you have a breed with a long tail then you're going to dock the tails at birth - here this is done with an elastic band tight around the tail which dies and falls off. This sounds cruel, but it's necessary - when the sheep poos the poo sticks to the tail, attracts flies, flies lay eggs, and next thing your sheep had a but full of maggots.



Was there a market for wool or shearling skins or for woolen goods? Until a few decades ago the money in raising sheep was in the wool, and that had been true for a very long time.

Wool would have been the main income from sheep. It's still worth a fair bit if you have a good breed with good fleece.




A few years ago, when I was traveling through Ireland (where they have plenty of sheep), a tour guide told me that farmers/shepherds would use some sort of non-toxic ink to make dots on the sides of their ewes. They each had codes, and the number of dots or pattern of dots would indicate if that ewe had been mated, with whom she had been mated, if she was pregnant, if she was carrying one or two or three lambs, and so on. It was a remarkably detailed system.

Rams wear a harness with a coloured wax block attached to the front. The colour can be changed for each ram, or changed for each heat cycle to show when a ewe was impregnated.

Buffysquirrel
03-06-2013, 05:34 PM
As far as smoking and salting meat... in some 1700s whaling or military ships, the men would actually soak their meat in water to try and draw out the salt before eating it. It definitely preserved the meat, but it wasn't necessarily "tasty"!

Salt beef was a staple of the Royal Navy and soaking it was one of the major uses they had for fresh water (for certain values of 'fresh'). Tasty? I doubt it. All they had to eat while working incredibly hard? Yep.

I suspect that in the era the OP wants to draw on, breeding selectively wasn't really carried out all that much.

benbenberi
03-06-2013, 05:37 PM
As far as smoking and salting meat... in some 1700s whaling or military ships, the men would actually soak their meat in water to try and draw out the salt before eating it. It definitely preserved the meat, but it wasn't necessarily "tasty"!

That's still the practice with salt cod (bacalao). Lots of people would swear they love it.

LBlankenship
03-07-2013, 05:29 PM
Thank you for all of the information and links!

dirtsider
03-07-2013, 08:25 PM
One person can easily keep a couple of hundred sheep as a full time job. They are pretty low maintance. The exception comes when it's lambing and shearing - you'll find that folks either hire help in - there are shearers who go from farm to farm all season - or they team up with other local farmers to help each other out. A skilled shearer can do a sheep in a couple of minutes - have a look on youtube I'm sure you'll find some traditional competitions there. We still have them here.

So true - Howell Farm has a herd of sheep they shear each spring. Since they bring in school kids throughout the week that time of year, they also shear some of the sheep from local herds as well as their own in order to show the kids how it's done as well as for the regular public during their Saturday event. I'm sure the other farmers find this arrangements useful.

Note, the breed of sheep will also dictate certain other care requirements - for instance, if you have a breed with a long tail then you're going to dock the tails at birth - here this is done with an elastic band tight around the tail which dies and falls off. This sounds cruel, but it's necessary - when the sheep poos the poo sticks to the tail, attracts flies, flies lay eggs, and next thing your sheep had a but full of maggots.

Not true. Docking the tails are a matter of convenience for the farmer, not a care requirement. Or even necessary. The sheep at Howell Farm are one of the long tailed variety and they don't dock the tails there. Nor have I heard that they've had a problem with maggots on the sheep. And I've been around long enough that I would've heard something by now. Leaving the tail alone just means a little extra work, such as cleaning the fleece after it's been sheared.

..

Saanen
03-07-2013, 08:34 PM
Regarding tail docking and flystrike, I don't know for sure (any vets out there?) but I suspect it has something to do with climate. It's very humid where I live and when I had Jacobs, a long-tailed breed, I didn't dock UNTIL I had a lamb that got flystrike. Which also happened to be my first lamb. I would never, ever not dock again because I never, ever want to see that again. Horrible. (The lamb was okay after vet treatment because I caught it early. Still horrible and disgusting though.)

veinglory
03-07-2013, 08:47 PM
Docking or some other precaution is necessary when the sheep are not given close supervised care (which most sheep are not) and flystrike is highly likely--merinos for example have lots of folds and extra long fleece so they are very susceptible.

LBlankenship
03-07-2013, 10:37 PM
Heh, I'm sure that not only would my characters have no problem docking tails, dinner that night would be lamb tail soup.

I'll look into the flystrike question...

Ariella
03-08-2013, 02:42 AM
Flystrike must be what the sixteenth-century poet Thomas Tusser was talking about when he wrote

If sheep or thy lamb fall a wriggling with tail,
Go, by and by, search it, while help may prevail;
That barberly handled, I dare thee assure,
Cast dust in his arse, thou hast finish'd thy cure.

Tusser's poem Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=7CdEAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false) is a good resource for finding out about pre-modern English agriculture and the times of year when different activities were practiced.

thothguard51
03-08-2013, 04:48 AM
From the limited information I have read, sheep had to be moved around much more than cows or horses to prevent them from over grazing a field. I read that sheep crop the grass closer to the ground than cows did and thus it takes a field longer to come back...

shaldna
03-08-2013, 02:37 PM
Regarding tail docking and flystrike, I don't know for sure (any vets out there?) but I suspect it has something to do with climate. It's very humid where I live and when I had Jacobs, a long-tailed breed, I didn't dock UNTIL I had a lamb that got flystrike. Which also happened to be my first lamb. I would never, ever not dock again because I never, ever want to see that again. Horrible. (The lamb was okay after vet treatment because I caught it early. Still horrible and disgusting though.)


Docking or some other precaution is necessary when the sheep are not given close supervised care (which most sheep are not) and flystrike is highly likely--merinos for example have lots of folds and extra long fleece so they are very susceptible.

We live in Ireland, and docking is very much necessary if you have a sheep with a long tail. I wouldn't exactly say we have a warm climate.



From the limited information I have read, sheep had to be moved around much more than cows or horses to prevent them from over grazing a field. I read that sheep crop the grass closer to the ground than cows did and thus it takes a field longer to come back...

A note to add - sheep don't have teeth as such, they have two grinding palettes which they use to mush the grass up. They do crop very close to the soil - which also means that they can survive quite well on paddocks or ground where there wouldn't be enough grass for a horse or a cow.

Also, sheep can eat things that other animals can't - for instance, sheep can eat ragwort which will kill a horse. I know some farmers who turn their horses out with sheep for this reason, or alternate the feilds.

LBlankenship
03-08-2013, 06:05 PM
On the flystrike issue: Googling turns up a lot of Australia/New Zealand hits, of course, but I did gather that it becomes a concern when ambient temperatures get above 62F/17C. And I did find an online discussion of a duck in upstate NY who was badly flystruck in late July (link (http://www.backyardchickens.com/t/692466/help-sick-duck-found-out-its-flystrike-and-update-on-my-boy)). The site, Backyard Chickens, has a scattering of posts about flystrike on poultry in various parts of the US. It seems to come from the same problem: a "messy bottom" draws blowflies, the larvae go to work.

So, it's on the list of my concerns as upstate NY is a very similar climate to central New England.

LBlankenship
06-10-2013, 11:32 PM
Just wanted to post this Youtube link for anyone doing research later: http://youtu.be/67ObjymUif8

I forgot to ask how livestock guard dogs respond to unfamiliar humans. Not so strongly as to predators, apparently (luckily for the characters in my story...)