Training sheep on a lead

I meant to write this a little while ago but events of the past few weeks have overtaken me, so this post is a little late in the season. July is a most incredibly busy time on a smallholding, and ours is no exception. We have been running eco-building courses; starting the eco-pods as well as running a cob course building the greenhouse. In addition I have been running workshops weaving willow, and that’s just the background work we’ve been doing.
The main smallholding jobs have been weeding the garden, which I am always behind on! Also harvesting fruit, and shearing sheep.

Firstly for the fruit. All smallholders have a glut of soft fruit in July. This year my blackcurrants didn’t do as well as last, but we still got around 10kg. Redcurrants another 10kg, gooseberries around 5kg, and strawberries another 10kg. All in all around 35kg, whereas last year we had an enormous 60kg of fruit. I think a few things have contributed to a smaller harvest, not least my focus having been on other jobs, meaning I have had little time to care for my fruit bushes. However, 35kg is nothing to sneeze at – and I have been busy preserving the fruit in a few ways, as well as putting a fair amount in the freezer to process when I have more time.

Firstly I made redcurrant jelly. A delicious and traditional preserve, I use organic sugar only, as I believe it’s important to keep your preserves as pure as possible, particularly if you have spent all that time growing organic fruit. I also just steam my jars as I think using chemicals to clean them is also totally unnecessary. I heat up the fruit with a little water and slices of a lemon, allowing to stew for an hour so the fruit isn’t overcooked. Then I take a boiled (sterilised) piece of muslin and lay it on top of a large colander, put the fruit inside and suspend over a pan, letting the juice drip through the cloth into the pan overnight. Don’t squeeze or your jelly will be cloudy! The next day add sugar and reheat. Pour into hot water sterilised jars, and seal immediately. Truly delicious and simple.

The other thing I usually make is cordial. Not just any cordial – why not try strawberry cordial with lemon? Or gooseberry & mint? POssibilites are endless, and totally refreshing and delicious.

I made both strawberry & redcurrant cordial this year. Its a similar process to jelly, just not reduced down as much. If you are like me you may occasionally get your consistencies a bit confused – my jelly was a bit runny, and the redcurrant cordial won’t pour our of the bottle it set too well! But other than these little hiccups, processing fruit is both fun & rewarding in a most nourishing way.

Lastly I made Redcurrant Vodka. Pop some washed redcurrants into a nearly full vodka bottle with a bit of sugar. Shake until the sugar in dissolved. Wait until around Christmas. Make sure you eat the fruit as it will have absorbed a lot of the alcohol. Enjoy!

So – onto sheep. We had left shearing a little late, and were a bit worried about fly strike & other sheepie difficulties. So we armed ourselves with tea tree oil & iodine, amongst other things, and were prepared for the worst. As it happens the Blue Faced Leicester sheep doesn’t have a lot of wool around it’s nether regions, so we didn’t need to worry about fly strike at all. What a relief!

Then, for the shearing. Last year we sheared the sheep in the more ‘normal’ way, by getting them on their bottoms & turning them so you can shear all over their bodies. With a large breed like the Blue Faced Leicester, this required 2 people to hold the sheep & the 3rd person to shear it. Even then, our largest ewe nearly broke free. And when you are using sharp hand clippers its pretty nerve wracking as you are also trying not to cut them while they occasionally make a vigorous attempt at freedom. Having found it quite traumatic for the sheep, I wanted a different method. Luck was on my side as not long after shearing my sheep last year I spoke to another shepherd & told him our difficulties. He said ‘why not put a dog collar on them, tie them up, and shear them standing up?’. I couldn’t believe this would work. ‘They soon get used to the collar and its better for both the sheep & the shepherd’.

I thought – why not give it a try? Its got to be better than 3 people wrestling a sheep and all of us getting stressed! So we tried our first ewe. She resisted the collar for about 30 seconds. Then she settled down. I had 2 other people on hand just in case things went wrong – but amazingly she just stood there to be sheared. It took me about 35 minutes per sheep. The last ewe, with a very thick fleece, was the most fiesty, and I had to sometime pin her back to the fence with my bottom while shearing bending over. But that’s as hard as it got! I was so pleased with myself that I could shear my 3 ewes single handedly, and with hardly any stress. They also stood like that for their feet to be clipped.

Of course this will not be practical for someone with a large flock, unless they are prepared to spend the time it takes. It also wont be practical for those with sheep that have really hard to get fleece on their bellies. But for a small scale shepherd, I highly recommend trying it. It really is possible to train your sheep to be on a lead!