A Year in the Life of Welsh Shepherds
SHEPHERDS around the world care for over a billion sheep. Each season brings its unique challenges. Gerwyn, Ioan, and Rhian describe a shepherd’s work on the mountains of Wales, where sheep outnumber people by a ratio of nearly 3 to 1.
When spring arrives, shepherds work day and night to assist ewes giving birth.
Gerwyn: “While lambing is the most tiring part of the year, it is without doubt the most rewarding, and a well-trained dog is invaluable. If a ewe has difficulty giving birth, my dog gently catches the animal and holds it down so I can assist her.”
Ioan: “No matter how many times I help ewes give birth, it is always special to see newborn lambs!”
The shepherd’s summer task is to clip the sheep’s wool, which can weigh up to 22 pounds (10 kg), depending on the breed. A shepherd may shear as many as 250 sheep per day.
Rhian: “First, I remove any dirty wool from around the sheep’s tail to prepare the sheep for shearing. In two minutes, skilled shearers using powered blades can remove a complete fleece. I help clean the fleeces too, after which I carefully roll them up and put them in sacks to be sold.”
On the lower ground, shepherds hope for two dry weeks to cut the meadows and make good-quality hay. This food will help feed the flock through the winter. Family and friends help cart the loads.
Ioan: “One of my happiest times is walking through a field the morning after harvest when the entire crop is in.”
In order for shepherds to separate the ewes from their weaned lambs, the flocks are gathered from the high ground.
Ioan: “Even with no hedges or stone walls on some of the mountains, sheep rarely get lost or roam onto a neighbor’s land. On our farm the mother ewe knows the boundaries. Having learned them from her mother or the shepherd, the mother ewe passes these on to the female lambs. Sometimes, though, we search for hours—even days—to find the few that stray.”
Shepherds also inspect, buy, and prepare rams for the ewes. One ram is needed for every 25 to 50 ewes. These are viewed as an investment in the future of the flock.
Between 10 and 12 weeks after rams have sired the ewes, the shepherd uses an ultrasound scanner to determine which ewes are pregnant and how many lambs each one will have in the spring. Barren ewes are sold. Those expecting one lamb are grouped together, whereas those with twins or triplets are given special attention and extra food.
Feeding the pregnant ewes takes much of a shepherd’s time during the brief daylight hours of winter. Whatever the weather, the shepherd is always close to the sheep, ensuring that there is plenty of food when the frosts are hard.
Gerwyn: “At such times, the sheep need their shepherd and look to him for food and protection.”
Rhian: “It is so stimulating to be out in all seasons to witness the many changes in wildlife and vegetation—a rewarding bonus as I continue in the work I love so much, caring for my flock.”
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Ioan inspects a ram
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Gerwyn with a well-trained sheepdog