Posted 4th May 2017
If you like the idea of owning a flock of sheep on your smallholding but don’t know where to start, then a day spent on the Oakberrow sheep husbandry course will arm you with all you need to know to get started
A warm welcome awaits you on your arrival at Oakberrow in Herefordshire, both from hosts Doreen Smillie and Steve Grey and their very friendly award-winning dogs. My day started with a cuppa in their cosy kitchen discussing what I hoped to get from the day and what we’d be covering on the course, then it was out to the barns to meet the sheep. The couple keep a mix of Ryelands, Grey-Faced Dartmoors and Texel cross Beltex sheep on their farm, a handsome bunch who have won plenty of awards at livestock shows. Steve begins by explaining how important it is to get your soil tested and your pasture right before you even think of buying your sheep, to ensure it has the right nutrients to sustain them. He discusses what types of feed your sheep will need and how many sheep to graze per acre. Then we look at the rules and regs you need to be aware of when keeping sheep and the medication you need to know about to ensure your flock stays healthy.
After feeding the ewes and rams, it’s time to get some hands-on experience with the flock. We begin by using an elastrator to castrate and dock the tail on a young lamb, then go on to apply identification tags to its ears. All the while Steve guides and helps me to ensure I feel confident and do the job well. Then it’s onto a foot-trimming lesson. As this is a job that needs to be done regularly on sheep, it’s important to know what you’re doing. Steve leads by example, then it’s my turn to give a very compliant ewe a pedicure. It turns out sheeps’ feet are pretty tough to trim, but after a while I get the hang of it and get Steve’s seal of approval. As well as foot care, Steve explains what to look for in a healthy sheep when you go to buy your new flock, what common ailments to look for in your sheep and how to treat them.
At lunchtime we head back indoors to enjoy a delicious home-cooked lunch which Doreen has prepared for us and discuss all things sheepy. Then it’s outside again to look at the kinds of housing you’ll need for your flock and the most important elements you need to consider when siting and equipping your barn, such as construction, orientation and utilities. Steve also runs through the equipment you will need to manage your flock, such as hurdles, crooks and a trailer. By now it’s time to let the ewes and lambs out to pasture while we refresh the bedding in their barn and top up their hay, water and feed troughs.
Finally, it’s back indoors to tuck into some of Doreen’s scrummy homemade cake as we discuss the topics of shearing, how to buy from a breeder and what to do when the time comes to take your sheep to the abattoir. Doreen shows me examples of the paperwork you’ll need to keep when you’re a shepherd, such as your medicines record, flock books and movement licenses. It's evident that as a keeper of any livestock, you must be prepared to do a fair bit of form filling to comply with Defra regulations.
By the end of the day I felt I had learned so much and felt confident enough to be able to handle my own small flock. Doreen and Steve have a lifetime of experience with livestock and their easy, friendly manner makes learning easy and fun. They run courses in sheep-keeping, husbandry, lambing and showing, for very small groups as well as one-to-one days, throughout the year at dates to suit you. Whichever course you choose you’ll be guaranteed to learn a lot and to have made new friends with this lovely couple of shepherds.
The Oakberrow sheep-keeping courses costs from £85 per person, including refreshments. For more information or to book a course, visit www.oakberrow.co.uk or call 07971 675162.
Feature by Anna-Lisa De’Ath