From my previous adventures breeding goats, I’m accustomed to the face of a heavily pregnant ruminant who is severely regretting her adventures with a handsome male member of her species 5 months previously. I say “ruminant” and not “goat” because it has become apparently lately that in fact Soay sheep ewes get exactly the same face.
Here, Relationsheep and a friend will demonstrate:
Those are two ewes who do not want to talk to Ferrington, even though he had nothing to do with getting them in a lamby way. They do not wish to speak to energetic young wethers like Reuben and Urdo, either, or bouncy baby goats. They want to enjoy this here sunbeam and not be pregnant anymore.
In my experience with goats, once they start getting this look on their faces it is at most 4 weeks until babies make an appearance. I’m mentally placing bets with myself as to whether Relationsheep and her friend there are going to present me with twins or if they’re just the sort of sheep who look enormous when they’re pregnant with one tiny single lamb. It could go either way, really, I’m not familiar enough with sheep to say. What’s driving me absolutely nuts is that sheep carry their tails down unless they’re pooping and their udders are hidden under a generous layer of belly wool, so I can’t reliably check either their vulvas or their udders to get an idea of how close they are. And they’re definitely not going to let me get close enough to grope their tail ligaments so I can check for softening! They are only slightly more interested in speaking to me than they are in speaking with the rest of the world that isn’t pregnant ewes, i.e. if I don’t have a bucket of grain I can go to hell and stop bothering them and must I breathe so very loudly and stomp around like that?
So here I am, being very very patient and waiting for lambs without being able to do anything but stare at sheep who are busy giving me the evil eye right back while they cud and plot the demise of all rams ever because they’re so very tired of being pregnant. In fact I think the ewes at this point are more interested in seeing lambs than I am, since then they won’t be carrying them around anymore!
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Excitement! My friend Kate-with-Soays (not to be confused with my friends Kate-the-author or Kate-with-cats-and-soap and yes Kate-with-Soays needs a website) hit upon a fabulous deal on Soay ewes, at less than half their usual sale price, and graciously shared it with me! You may in fact have noticed the latest round of crowd-funding to expand the herd.
The new ewes have genetics I don’t already have, and have been sending time with an equally worthy ram. This will mean at least five but potentially eight ewes unrelated to Ferrington will be here, opening up the possibility that I can isolate his daughters from him and keep him an extra year before I move him on. Which would be nice, because I’m fond of Ferrington. He’s small for a ram and mellow and good with goats, sheep and humans (pigs occasionally drive him to violence and have learned to avoid him). So another breeding year with him would be no hardship, really.
The three new ewes are mouflon-patterned like my current flock, but come from South Carolina. And that is the extent of what I know as Kate-with-Soays will be surprising me with three of the six she picked up when she made the trip to get them. Unless of course the rain here in the southeast stops and she gets a chance to get pictures — cross your fingers!
Other things to look forward to: lambing should start in February, so cross your fingers that the winter stays mild. Ella and Mabel’s lambs will be raised for meat, Soay lambs get to live and grow wool. There may also be piglets around the same time, all of whom will be available as pasture-maintainers, pets, and meat. And of course now that rabbits are back up and breeding like, well, rabbits, there will be an endless assortment of meat bricks, a few of whom will get held over to provide prime furs next winter.
Previously in my livestock endeavors, I’ve been making specific selections for traits (or collections thereof) that I really like in animals, as farmers have been doing for millennia. So I’ve bred for goats with nice, moderate conformation; good hooves; feed efficiency; and milk production. I’ve turned the chickens loose to free range and selected for hardy, wily birds that reproduce well. I’ve selected rabbits for those that thrive in a colony situation on a varied diet.
But then came the Soays. The gene pool is so limited, globally, that if breeders were to start selecting for conformation, or wool production, or meat, or whatever, that we would quickly and disastrously run out of genetic material to work with. This is especially true in the US, where the original population of Soays was just six sheep. Although the gene pool has been augmented since the original herd by imported semen from the UK, we’re still working with a severely restricted gene pool, a tiny slice of an already small pie.
Breeding Soay sheep therefore becomes an entirely different game: preserving the genetic legacy of each healthy animal. You might cull for health, but not for color or conformation or quality of wool or fast growth. Instead of looking at fleeces, you’re looking at pedigrees, trying to find the furthest outcross available to you.
A sad knock-on effect of this from my point of view is that small flocks like mine can rarely keep a ram more than two years. As soon as any of his daughters are retained, a ram needs to move along to spread his genes elsewhere. So while I do adore my ram Ferrington, he won’t be here for the long term like the ewes and wethers.
It’s an interesting mental shift for me from selecting for production to preservation, but very rewarding work. I spend my time studying pedigrees of the three Soay flocks nearest to me, looking for someone who might have a ram for me in 2017, and balancing distance against the genetic diversity of my flock. Someday maybe I’ll be able to import semen to artificially inseminate my own ewes, and more actively contribute to helping preserve these tiny woolly jewels.