Sheep fleeces come in many different natural colours and markings, some breed specific and others very individual. Shetland sheep for example come in eleven main colours, with many shades in between, and more than 30 different kinds of markings. So if you have only a few sheep, or most of them have special markings, you will find it fairly easy to recognise the individuals. If however they are all a uniform breed and colour, and the ear tags are too small to read from anywhere further than half a metre away, you’d need very good eyesight or memory (or both!) to remember each. How do you keep in mind which ones have had treatments from the edges of the flock? Is this why tartan sheep appeared?
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But is it paint?
Insert here the various colourful dots, numbers or patches you will see or indeed apply yourself if you are a sheep keeper. Each flock is unique and each shepherd has their system and favourite colours. I remember a farmer who would never use red marker for fear someone mistook it for blood from a distance; or another who just did not like green and said it made the ewes backsides blend with the vegetation. What are the colours we see, and what are their uses? They are usually related to either breeding or treatments, although some are purely cosmetic; they will be used at different times of the year. The most commonly used are the following:
Ewes-lambs pairing numbers:
The reasons for these are fairly obvious. Once a ewe has lambed, at turnout she and her lamb(s) get the same number sprayed on their side. If they end up separated, the shepherd is able to match them up again and that helps in reducing the risks of mismothering or lamb death by exposure. This can happen in the first few days.
Often after having been pregnancy-scanned, the ewes will sport different colours or numbers of dots on their back depending on how many lambs they are carrying.
These are commonly used in flocks that are left to roam commons or hills; and only gathered a few times a year by all the farmers grouped together. The sheep know which territory to stay on (hefted), but sometimes they stray and intermingle. The smit marks are flock-specific initials, or designs, that belong to their owner only. Therefore making it easier to split them up in their own pens when coming off the hills.
At breeding time when the rams join the ewe flock they might be fitted with a crayon harness round their chest or have their brisket painted. As they go round mating the ewes, the colour will transfer onto the females’ rumps, leaving a clear indication of where the ram has been. Changing the colour of the paint after a breeding cycle (17 days) will give the shepherd a rough estimate of when the ewes will be due to lamb. For example, all those marked with the first colour should lamb in the first couple of weeks, etc.
Changing paint colours is also useful to spot the ewes that did not hold to the first mating (as they’ll have a subsequent colour on their rump). Or if more than one ram is out with them you will be able to tell which one mated with which ewe. This can be useful to spot subfertile or infertile rams.
Herdwick fabric patches:
Traditionally on some Fell farms the gimmers (young female sheep) were not supposed to breed until they were older. Since Herdwick sheep roam hills freely it would have been impossible to stop a tup from finding them. To stop this, coloured fabric or hessian patches were sewn onto the wool of the ewes’ backside as a method of contraception.
Either marker spray dots as a reminder of who got what, or actual veterinary products such as antiseptic/antibiotic sprays or fly strike prevention medicines which are usually dyed. Each farmer will have their own “dot-code” with different colours and number of dots meaning different products given and/or timing. For example, a farmer keeping track of lameness treatments will often put a dot on the affected leg. If after a few months an animal has more than 2-3 dots it will likely have to be culled as a repeat offender.
Show dyes and whitening chalks/products:
Specific breed colours might be used to dye the fleece of sheep just before going to a show or sale. There is a very bright orange dye that is very hard to miss once they arrive in their new fields! Whitening products are also used after washing the white areas to make them stand out. I always find it fascinating to watch the “Farm salon” before a sale so that both sheep and cattle can look their best and fetch good prices for the farmer. The pride some farmers take would put the fanciest London salon to shame!