Tired of shearing your sheep? Get Soay!

Now that the summer temperatures are approaching the 100 degree mark, the thought of having to shear our sheep and wrestle with all that hot wool gives me the willies – yuk! Thankfully, the lore about Soay shedding their own fleece is true; with one notable exception, Soay sheep really do cast off their fleece each spring with no assistance of any kind from us. In years past, we occasionally sheared an animal, usually a ram, that was particularly ratty or tardy in shedding, but these days we just wait for the sheep to get around to it.

The one circumstance under which some ewes do not shed at all is when one fails to conceive or is not bred for whatever reason. Most of the time, open ewes do not shed their fleece until the next time they successfully lamb. We have one example in our flock that is so startling I want to share it with you.

Born in 2006, Fulmar sports an unusually heavy and, it turns out, stubborn coat. When we were working lambs in 2010, we were struck by the sheer volume of fleece she cast:

soay sheep naturally shedding fleece

Fulmar has an unusually heavy coat, partially shed

soay sheep shedding fleece

With a little help, most of Fulmar’s coat came right off

Fulmar did not lamb in 2011 or 2012, with the result that she accumulated a huge coat of fleece for the last three years. But she always carried her fleece comfortably with no signs of heat stress, so we let her live with it for the simple reason that it seemed most natural to us. This year, she finally lambed and — not to spoil the end of the story — she also cast off all those years of fleece. Here she is in late March and April, just before she lambed:

Heavily-coated soay sheep

Fulmar with her multi-year coat

Pregnant Soay ewe?

Is there a lamb under all that fleece?

Truth to tell, we had no idea whether Fulmar would produce a lamb or two, or whether once again all that fleece was hiding … well, all that fleece. Thankfully, she birthed a beautiful ewe lamb, shown here at age twelve weeks just as we were weaning her:

Fulmar's 2013 ewe lamb at 12 weeks

Fulmar's 2013 ewe lamb at 12 weeks

I cannot resist a short digression. For anyone who tells you raising a lamb by bottle is as good for the lamb as living on its mother’s milk, do not believe it. Fulmar’s lambing history makes the point. Look at the difference in size between Fulmar’s 2013 lamb and Patterdale, the lamb Fulmar rejected in 2008 and who became our one and only bottle baby. This picture of Patterdale was taken when she was within a few days of the same age as Fulmar’s 2013 lamb pictured above. At 10 weeks, the 2013 lamb, Bremble, weighed 31 pounds. When Patterdale was 8 and 1/2 months old (34 weeks), she only weighed 18 pounds, despite herculean efforts to get her growing faster.

Bottle baby Patterdale

Fulmar’s bottle baby Patterdale at 11 weeks

Okay, back to the issue of shedding. A couple of days ago I was out taking pictures of our ewes in their summer pasture and who should come sauntering by but Fulmar, pleased as punch to have her big strapping 2013 lamb weaned and on its own in another pasture. As you can see, Fulmar is none the worse for wear for having nursed that big lamb for twelve weeks, but in terms of fleece, she is a shadow of her pre-lambing self. Even Fulmar’s profile is more elegant when her long neck is visible instead of being hidden under three years’ worth of fleece.

Fully-rooed Soay ewe

It feels sooo good to be rid of all that fleece!

Soay ewe in tall grass

Lovely Fulmar in the tall green grass

Now that Fulmar has shed her coat, the birds around here are having a grand old time using her fleece to build nests. The shepherds at Saltmarsh Ranch are glad they do not need to engage a sheep shearer. And just imagine how much better Fulmar feels – whew!

For now …