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Benefits Trump Braggadocio

Easy Care Breed Now A Half-Million Strong

By Alan Harman

Britain’s Easy Care breed cuts 80 percent of shepherding labors and expenses.

Britain’s Easy Care sheep breed numbers have now topped 500,000 head as increasing numbers of farmers opt for an animal that makes their life easier.

The wool-less breed is a cross between the Wiltshire Horn breed, and the hardy Welsh Mountain breed.

The breeding process began in 1965 when Richard “IoIo” Owen started developing a sheep that would suit the needs of the lowland farmer and from which he could breed his own replacements. (In Britain, “lowland sheep farming” normally relies on this type of land’s year-round grass growth with little or no indoor keep and therefore little or no hay requirement.)

His goal was a medium sized single purpose meat sheep requiring the minimum of maintenance and producing as near to 200 percent lambing as possible.

Starting & Maintaining The Tradition Of Easy Care

He used as his starting point the prize-winning Gedwydd flock of Wiltshire Horns, founded in 1911 by his father, Richard Hughes Owen, on the Isle of Anglesey, North Wales.

Experience with Wiltshires had proven the value of wool-less sheep. Wool contributes less than 5 percent of the sheep’s income and Owen says this does not justify wool’s enormous share in shepherding costs. With the elimination of shearing, as well as dipping and crutching, the other main expense was lambing.

Knowing that every characteristic in an animal is hereditary, Owen says an important part of the breeding process was culling members of the flock that needed assistance at lambing.

About 20 percent of the Wiltshire-crossed Welsh Mountain sheep inherited their sire’s characteristic of shedding its wool and it was these few that were kept back for breeding. By selecting the finest-coated rams it was found they were breeding relatively true to type. The absence of horns became apparent in the first few generations although complete wool shedding took longer.

A factor that emerged unexpectedly was that with less wool the ewes produced more milk and thus heavier lambs, more than compensating for the loss of wool revenue.

To maintain the initial hybrid vigor, a system was adopted in the 1970s of four elite flocks of 25 of the best ewes. The best ram lamb from each flock was chosen to breed for one season only on the next flock. This achieved a quicker genetic turnover.

Owen’s breeding program combined the rapid growth rate, lamb quality and other strengths of his naturally wool-less pedigree Wiltshire Horn flock with the smaller, hardy Welsh Mountain producing a breed of sheep with all the qualities sought after by the modern farmer—and with fewer of the drawbacks.

As well as being wool-less, Easy Care sheep are extremely hardy, thrive on grass and inexpensive feed, have a 180 percent lambing rate and produce excellent meat. They shed their hair naturally over a six week time span.

After 20 years of selection to consolidate uniform profit traits into the bloodlines, sales of the breed began in 1985.

The improvement process has continued its development of the breed’s profit traits with the adoption of another selection system in which outstanding ewes are tested for scrapie and bred to the best blood-tested ram lamb. The aim is to produce scrapie-free sheep.

All The Keeper Has To Do Is…

“The true Easy Care philosophy, when applied to shepherding, usually means set-stocking (large, non-rotated pastures) with anything from two ewes an acre all the year round—with no nitrogen or concentrated feed—up to eight ewes an acre from spring until autumn on rested land (rotated paddocks), according to size of ewe, quality of pasture, amount of nitrogen used, and any supplementary feed given,” Owens says.

“I have practiced the lower end of the stocking rate over the years and have found it very successful: Two ewes an acre (five per hectare) from October until weaning in July. The rams are introduced at a rate of three per 100 ewes on November 4, to coincide with lambing April 1.

“This low stocking rate means there is no need for feed unless the ground is snow-covered for any length of time when feed blocks can be used. No concentrate feed is ever used and my flock has never seen a trough. No nitrogen is used but I do try to maintain a good ryegrass sward with plenty of white clover. Lime, phosphate and potash is applied when necessary.”

The rams are removed at the beginning of January and all the sheep are vaccinated with ‘eight-in-one’ and foot bathed. This is the only time they are gathered during the October to July period, making for very low labor costs and no need for a sheep dog.

This low density stocking rate also adds several benefits:

There is very little worm burden.

Any foot rot problem is not spread as it would be if they were closely stocked.

Other diseases are not as likely to spread from sheep to sheep.

Mismothering at lambing is kept to a minimum as the ewes have space to give birth and bond on their own.

“At lambing time I open as many fields as possible for the flock to find its own ‘home,'” Owen says. “I ‘look’ at them daily in case there is any problem such as mastitis or any other unforeseen issue. The golden rule is to disturb them as little as possible.”

All the lambs are weaned in mid-July when three months old. The ewes are stocked quite heavily during August to October so as not to let them get too fat. The ewe lambs are also bred and Owen gets about 80 percent of them lambing.

Tragedy & Triumph

Owens’ flock of 2,000 Easy Care ewes had reached a very satisfying standard by 2001 when disaster struck. A foot and mouth disease outbreak saw all but 150 of his flock culled.

His son had a flock of 1,000 outside the cull area and they worked together to rebuild the breed.

“In 2003 a few enthusiastic breeders joined us and the Easy Care Sheep Society was formed.” Owens says. “The interest in and growth of the breed has been phenomenal with already about 100 breeders from the Isle of Wight at the extreme south of England to Aberdeen, Scotland. Ireland and Holland have imported some as the downturn in the wool trade emphasized the attraction of a wool-shedding, easy-lambing ewe.”

The Easy Care breed has been recognized by the United Kingdom’s National Sheep Association and there is growing interest in the breed from locations as far away as the Middle East, Sri Lanka, the Caribbean, New Zealand and Australia.

Some key features of the breed:

  • Ewe body weight around 132 pounds (60 kg)
  • 1.8 lambs reared per ewe
  • Ease of lambing—specifically developed for this purpose
  • Vitality at birth—born with hair for protection
  • High growth rate—lambs reach 38-pound (17 kg) carcass weight at 12 weeks
  • High meat yield
  • Strong sires—rams are particularly pre-potent and immensely virile.

Other advantages to the farmer include no shearing and minimal shepherding labor; low veterinary care; unaffected by extreme weather conditions; thrives on lowland grass; meets modern market requirements; healthy constitution—hardy, less prone to many illnesses and quick to recover; very profitable—cuts over 80 percent of shepherding costs.

Those interested in the breed can find more information about them at the Easy Care sheep breed website or by writing to The Easy Care Sheep Society, Secretary R.I. Owen, Glantraeth, Bodorgan, Anglesey, North Wales, LL62 5EU, United Kingdom.

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