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Author: Lyndsey Smith

Where wool begins: Keeping sheep safe

Where wool begins: Keeping sheep safe

In my last post, I introduced you to how we raise sheep (and wool!) a little differently than most in Canada — our sheep live outside year-round and graze solar installations and cover crops as their day-job.

In that post, our livestock guardian dogs made an appearance and garnered plenty of attention, as they should. We couldn’t graze sheep like we do without our dogs!

Where we farm, coyotes are a major threat to sheep. Our sheep are also vulnerable to attacks by ravens and even bears, though it has been years since that has happened here. Did I mention we are in Ottawa city limits? We are! But yes, there are black bears, sometimes wolves, and plenty of coyotes to worry about.

There are a few options for guardian animals, including dogs, llamas, and donkeys. We’ve had the greatest success with dogs — it takes a predator to smell, spot, and deter a predator. And that is our goal: unless a coyote or group of coyotes is preying on our sheep, we leave them alone. We would rather not hunt or trap the coyotes, but it does happen from time to time that a troublesome animal or family moves in and even the dogs can’t keep them back.

We’re always asked what breeds of dogs we use. Most of our dogs are a mix of breeds — there are a surprising number of guardian dog breeds, all of which have been developed over hundreds of years alongside sheep flocks. Most of our dogs are Maremma (an Italian breed), with some Great Pyrenees, Akbash, and Karakachan in the mix.

A child and adorable puppies
Charlie and some puppies, March 2022

Our dogs are sometimes born here, or at other sheep farmer’s set ups, but it’s so important that they be from working parents and are born and raised with the charges they will protect. A pup needs to bond with sheep from the beginning so that they treat them as their own. The instincts these dogs have been selected for are truly amazing, but they still require training and support to eventually make it as a livestock guardian. Not all of them do.

We run about one adult dog per 200 ewes, but prefer that the dogs work in pairs. The final number (up to three or four) all depends on the coyote pressure, the terrain, fences, and whether we are lambing or not. There are always young dogs coming on and older dogs slowing down. It’s a real challenge to find the balance of new and experienced.

A livestock guardian dog watches as a ewe has her lamb
A livestock guardian dog watches as a ewe has her lamb. The paint on the ewe is to identify with breeding group she is in. It mostly washes off the wool, I promise.

We’ve just started lambing this week (see above) and two of our newest dogs are doing an amazing job keeping watch over the newest lambs. These dogs not only keep the ewes and lambs safe they also clean up the lambing areas (gross!) which serves a real purpose — less scent for predators to pick up on or come in to investigate. The relationship between these dogs and their flocks is incredible.

Even with many good dogs, losses still happen. This past fall and winter were some of the hardest for coyote kills in close to 10 years. They even took down a mature ram, which is rare. We did have a few trapped, and that seemed to help, but our goal is to add more dogs to keep the pressure down.

A livestock guardian dog looks over his sheep after being sheared
T-Dawg, a livestock guardian dog, looks after sheep

Until next time, enjoy the sunshine and if you’d like to see more of our solar grazing and lambing adventures check us out on Instagram at @Shady_Creek_Lamb!

Where wool begins: a solar grazing story

Where wool begins: a solar grazing story

I’m pleased as can be to have been asked to contribute to this felting and fibre blog, though the most I’ve ever done with the art side is creating a happy face on a wool dryer ball (it was very satisfying!).

I was asked (I think?) to share on this blog as a raiser of wool — a much different, but key, part of the fibre world!

Our farm is Shady Creek Lamb Co., based near Kinburn, Ontario. Our sheep, however, end up living all over the place because a key part of our farm is solar grazing.

What is solar grazing? We have two main sheep flocks, and each one is tasked with doing the “mowing” at commercial solar sites. The companies that own and run the solar sites pay us to use sheep to mow instead of using tractors and mechanical mowing. Each of the two sites is 200 acres.

A ewe stands under a solar panel
A ewe stands under a solar panel. Note the burrs. (EDF Renewables, 2021)

We run all wool sheep, and some of our wool has even been used for “real” wool projects — but we also have a good portion of our wool that is nothing more than compost, for a few reasons. One, we do have a fair amount of Romanov genetics in our flock. Romanov lambs have beautiful soft coats, often with colour, but when the adult wool comes in it’s more like hair. The double coat and wire texture make it the least favourite of our shearer and anyone who wants our wool!

The balance of our flock has some lovely wool. We usually run purebred rams — Canadian Arcott, Suffolk, Shropshire, and Border Leicester, but we run some commercial rams too. Our most recent addition is the Clun Forest. Those first babies will be born in May.

Beyond the obvious Romanov wool, we also battle different issues with wool quality than some barn-based farms. In winter, our ewes eat hay that’s been unrolled on snow. This actually keeps the wool quite clean and tidy. It’s the grazing aspect that ruins our wool for much more than compost — because we deal with burdock in one of our solar sites. Burrs are hated by us, our shearer, and anyone who hopes to do anything with wool, but they are a struggle to get rid of on the one site.

Sheep graze a field of peas, barley, wheat and sunflowers

Our sheep also spend the autumn and early winter grazing cover crops, which is a new venture for us. Grazing cover crops — a mix of plants seeded after a winter wheat crop comes off to decrease erosion and feed soil microbes — has been a natural extension of the grazing season for our sheep.

We usually have our ewes sheared in April, but because we run multiple flocks, we have split shearing into two times of the year, with at least one of those shearing days happening at the solar. It’s a challenge to have the equipment and power and people power (and shade!) on-site, but we’ve made it work.

Shearing is an important part of the flock’s health management. Wool sheep do not shed their wool, so it must be removed every year. Good wool cover keeps sheep very warm in the winter, but it needs to be removed before the heat of summer sets in. What’s more, too much or dirty wool can cause skin infections, harbour parasites, or lead to unhealthy lambs. Shearing does not hurt the sheep, and it gives us a hands-on, close-up look at our ewe’s body condition before lambing. It costs about $5 per sheep to have them sheared, but that is just for the shearer: we pay two or three people full wages to help for the four or five days a year of shearing. Wool itself is always sold at a net loss, even if we get decent quality.

Fun fact: wool composts beautifully, so even though the infested wool can’t be “used,” it does have value as we compost it and apply the nutrients back to the pasture and hay fields.

Please ask questions! Next blog post I will write about our guardian dogs (pictured above is Nala, a Great Pyrenees/Karakachan cross. She loves her sheep but she loves belly rubs and snacks more).

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