Tupping time at the Sheep Garden

Tiffany Daneff / 11 November 2015

Saga Magazine's gardening editor Tiffany Daneff takes the time to observe her neighbouring sheep, and learns the meaning behind the colourful blobs of dye on their wool.

All morning the air has been thrilling with the sound of sheep on the move, except round here it’s not just the baaing of disgruntled ewes that carries over the fields but the hooting of the farmers’ 4x4 which he uses instead of a dog.

Beep beep beepety beep goes the horn and “whoop whoop” calls the farmer through the wound down window. After a few hours you hardly notice the racket. 

The ewes, while taking all this moving from one field to the next in their stride, still insist on letting you know that they’re not best pleased. 

Read more from the Sheep Garden.

They come careening down the lane and clattering along the dirt track in a dirty woolly wave past the house setting off my dog, who’d love nothing better than to lend a hand. But at length everyone has been moved from here to there and back again and by mid afternoon a wonderful silence descends across the darkening valley as the ewes settle themselves to grazing.

It’s that time of year when the rams are brought out. They’ve been up in a field of their own, five or six together, both Charolais (white face) and black-faced Suffolk. Until I moved here I had never really considered the physiognomy of sheep, nor indeed how great the difference is between that of ewes and rams, that is entire male sheep. (Those not going to be used for tupping (mating) are castrated and known as wethers.) 

Rams are wonderful creatures with great, broad prehistoric faces and a look that tells it like it is but, having no horns, they don’t frighten me. Unlike the cows.

The ewes are no push-over either. But with them it’s all about strength in numbers. Few things give me so much pleasure as being followed by a field full of staring sheep. 

It’s the black dog they take exception to and they gather together, from all corners of the field, and creep up behind us as if they were playing grandmother’s footsteps. Except that when I turn around they keep on coming, each with their wide eyes fixed on us. If looks could kill… The whole herd moves as one, holding a perfect semi circle behind us until they are within spitting distance. If we didn’t know better we might be scared. Then Daisy moves and they all scatter.

Tupping explained

The reason for all this moving of livestock is to separate those ewes that have been tupped from those that haven’t. It’s easy to tell which is which. The blue stain across the mid back is the farmer’s mark. Every beast has one of those. 

The orange smudge is the telltale sign that the tup ram, who has a box of dye slung around his neck, has done his work. I thought one orange blob meant one visit, but the farmer’s just explained that the dye box only leaves a thin streak. Those large blobs on some of the ewes is a sign of their popularity. And, another interesting fact: where one ram goes, the others are keen to follow.

After a week shut up in a small field with five other rams, and a field full of ewes on the other side of the fence, they just can’t wait to get on with it. Baa-aaa-aaaaaa.

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