Sunday 26 September 2010

Dressing mule ewe lambs

Shep's been busy. It's the season for the sheep breeding sales and sheep have to be dressed. We don't dress them up in clothes we just titivate them up somewhat. Same as when we like to look our best - bit of a hair cut and tidy up is what we give them.

The first sales of the season tend to be for the more in-bye breeds. The mule ewe lamb is one of those. Actually the mule ewe lamb is bred from hill sheep and many farms in Tarset with some kinder ground do breed these lambs. The blackfaced or swaledale ewes being crossed with the blue faced leicester tup gives you your mule, recognised as a true breed, even has it's own breed society but in actual fact it is a cross breed - a much sought after mongrel.

The mule has long been recognised as a prolific breeding sheep, carrying the best attributes of both it's parents it has been much sought after the length and breadth of the country as a breeding ewe which produces quality fat lambs. Due to this the north of England has become a breeding area for the mule.
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The mule ewe lamb finds herself being dressed to enhance her physical qualities. Carcase is a priority (a shapely figure), followed by skin type (tight purly wool), they ought to carry their heads high and sport a good set of ears. Personal preferences have seen many prefer those lambs with a dark head colour although in all fairness one which has a light coloured face will breed just the same, it boils down to what pleases the eye of the beholder.

The lambs in the above photo have yet to be dressed, they are carrying wool around their cheeks, the belly wool makes them look lower to the ground and shorter of the body, the hair on their faces also give them an immature look. The idea of dressing them out is to give the impression of a bigger, better carcased animal.

Unfortunately it would seem that buyers cannot see beyond a dressed sheep, set a pen full in front of them which are undressed and they will generally be a less price than those which are turned out for the job, add to that the fact that farmers and shepherds like to take pride in their stock and turn them out to the best of their abilities you then find that the autumn sees a great deal of sheep being dressed, and not just mule ewe lambs but every other breed you could imagine also.
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The above lamb has been dressed. The neck has been clipped out to 'give her more neck' - lift her head and set her head off. The belly has been clipped giving the impression of being longer of the leg and also the body. Ears have been clipped to accentuate their size, some of the hair has been shaved off the face making the head look sharper, broader and exaggerating a slightly roman nose which is a breed characteristic.

There are a variety of styles of dressing but they all aim to achieve the same things, it's just a matter of different areas and different people have different styles. The day used to be that every sheep dressed was probably done so in a slightly different manner. Some would need to be dressed hard around the neck to give them more neck, others might need their chests dressed hard to make them appear broader. There are many tricks of the trade and all can help to alter the appearance of a particular animal. All I can do is share the basics with you, life would be too complicated otherwise!

And so, back to dressing mule ewe lambs. What is needed? An electric machine and a pair of hand shears will suffice.

What I call 'commercial' dressing of sheep is almost all done with the electric. The days of dressing with hand shears when you're paid by the head is now long past as it is far more time consuming. Although when it comes to dressing black faces and swaledales it is all done with hand shears but then they don't require quite so much attention.
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Shep prefers to back a sheep into the corner and stand astride to dress her. There are many who use dressing stools but a) you have to lift them into the stool and b) I always found they hunched up too much for dressing the fronts successfully. So, once they've been sat on their backsides to have their bellies clipped it's back onto their feet and into the corner with them.

A steady hand is required to dress the wool around the necks and chests. Sheep don't stand still, they tend not to be placid and helpful, instead preferring to bounce around in the hope of escaping your clutches. Being over zealous whilst the electric machine is running can lead to wool coming off where you don't want it to and once it's been cut off it can't be put back. So a steady hand in control of the handpiece and a strong arm in control of the sheep is a necessity.
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Ideally a cattle comb is best to use on the hair on the lambs head, it clips barer as the teeth are closer together, it is also safer to use. However it isn't as easy to use on the wool of the body as it bungs up too easily due to the narrowness of the teeth, therefore I tend to just use a normal wool comb for everything.
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An ability to use both right and left hands whilst dressing is a god send, it makes access to the bits you wish to clip such a lot easier and enables an even clip all over.
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An arty shot! It does however show the speed that the machine can be going at, or ought I say the arm which is powering the machine? Anyhow, whilst the sheep is jumping around and the machine is running it is often too easy to stab oneself, I have a number of small triangular scars on my left fore arm caused by self mutilation due to lack of concentration, strangely enough my right arm seems to have been more fortunate!
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The above were mule lambs out of the swaledale ewe and they are definitely hairier of the head than those out of the blackface but the photo shows just how much hair comes flying off their faces when they are shaved. These little, short, sharp hairs manage to get everywhere, often the tweezers are required once in the bath at night to remove them from some tender areas of the body where they have found themselves embedded, a rash across the belly is not unheard of with little stubbly hairs sticking out - all sheep hairs I may add! I tend to wear as many layers of clothes as possible (whilst trying not to cause heat exhaustion), in an attempt to stop these splinters of hairs from transplanting themselves all over my torso.
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Eventually you hope all your efforts have been worth while. You can stand back and view your hard work, a well dressed sheep is pleasing to the eye. She'll stand proud and look alert and hopefully catch the eye of the buyers when she goes through the ring at the auction mart.


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