Starting Your Own Flock

Want to start your own sheep flock? Be it half a dozen ewes or several hundred, the same principles apply. The first part of this article provides information on keeping yourself legal in terms of sheep movements and identification, and below there is more general information and suggestions of things to think about:-

The information here is provided as a guide and a starting point for finding information relevant to where you are in the UK and the type of enterprise you wish to establish.

Keeing things legal: To become a sheep keeper you need to obtain several things before and during taking ownership:

1. County Parish Holding Number. To register sheep you must first obtain a CPH number for the land where the animals will be kept. This is issued by the Rural Payments Agency (or DARD in Northern Ireland). RPA has sole responsibility for CPHs, so you need to register with them regardless of whether you are eligible for a Single Farm Payment or not.

  • RPA England
  • RPA Wales - click here to find your local office
  • RPA Scotland - click here to find your local office

2. Movement licence. When you first bring sheep to your holding (and every subsequent movement thereafter) the move must be reported to the relevant authority. You can do this on paper or electronically in Scotland, Northern Ireland and (as of April 1st 2014) England, although the Welsh system will remain paper-based until late 2015. For information on movement reporting in your region, follow the links below.

Find out more about the incoming electronic reporting system for Wales here.

3. Flock Number. Once you receive your CPH number, your animals can be moved to your holding under a general licence. You’ll then need to register your flock with Defra by contacting your nearest Animal Health Office by telephone, using your CPH number as a reference. Click here to find your local AHVLA Office in England, Wales and Scotland.

4. Holding Register. As a sheep keeper you must obtain and keep updated your Holding Register, which includes your holding details, tag replacements, all sheep and goat movements on and off your holding, date of identification and deaths, annual count of animals on your holding as on 1 December each year, individual records of sheep and goats born or identified after 31 December 2009. A Defra-approved template can be found here but you can use an alternative that suits you (such as online) if you prefer - just as long as it incorporates all the information and is clearly legible should you be visited by an inspector. The new Arams system will allow sheep keepers in England to use an online holding register which will automatically update when a movement is reported electronically.

5. Eartags. All breeding animals require an electronic tag in one ear and a visual tag in the other, with alternative rules for lambs not to be kept as breeding animals in England, Scotland and Wales.

The rules in England changed on 1st January 2015. Lambs intended for finishing are no longer allowed to be tagged with the non-electronic slaughter eartag - farmers are now required to use electronic slaughter tags. Farmers in Wales will be permitted to use non-electronic slaughter tags until Jauary 2016, when electronic tagging of slaughter lambs will also become compulsory in Wales.

6. Veterinary/Medicine Book. As with your holding register, you can record the information in a way that best suits you and is clearly legible for an inspector. Click here for a Defra-approved list of what to record and here for an example of a medicines book.

Click here for information relevant to Northern Ireland.

Sourcing grazing land: Land for sale or rent can be sought from various estate agents/land agents or specialist magazines. Places to investigate are livestock markets, farmer groups and other local contacts. Don't forget that some people living in the countryside with small amounts of land next to their house may well be willing to pay for the service of someone grazing the land and keeping it in good condition.

Sourcing stock: Sheep can be sourced from either private or livestock sales. To assist in the control of disease, purchase sheep where the health status is known and documentation is provided. Collect from the vendor as much information as possible on the recent history of the flock, flock management and what treatment/vaccinations the animals have received.

Breed selection: In the UK the sheep industry is largely stratified with particular breeds occupying specific environments to which they are adapted. It is important to select a breed suitable to your location and business requirements. You can find out more about breeds and cross-breeds commonly found in the UK here.

  • The Hills: Hardy hill and mountain sheep are largely kept as pure breeds. Income is usually surplus female lambs and wether lambs sold as stores to upland/lowland farms to be fattened. Also older ewes that have lambed several times are transferred to the milder climate of lower areas where they are crossed with longwool breeds to produce Mules and half-breds.
  • The Uplands: In upland areas there are again specific breeds.These and older draft mountain ewes are crossed with the longwool breeds, resulting in a wide variation of half-bred or mules. Income is usually ewe lambs sold to the lowlands to be crossed with a lowland/terminal sire breed, and surplus female and all wether lambs sold as stores for fattening in the lowlands. 

  • The Lowlands: In the lowlands, the mules and half-breds are crossed with lowland (terminal) sires to produce lambs that can be fattened on summer grass. Slower growing lambs join the store lambs that have arrived from the hill and upland areas to be fattened on root crops over the autumn and winter months. Income us usually finished lambs and maybe breeding ewes and pedigree terminal sires. 
  • Closed flock systems: While this stratified system is well tried and tested and forms the majority of UK sheep production, there are also many sheep farmers who operate ‘closed flocks’. The principle here is to implement a breeding policy that allows breeding stock to be retained alongside other stock that are sold. This can be done by either using different rams for different purposes, or breeds that are suitable for both breeding and meat or wool production traits.

Newly Purchased Sheep: On arrival onto the farm holdings all sheep should undergo a minimum six-day isolation period where they should not come into contact with other sheep, or where they do all sheep are kept as an isolated flock. Now is the ideal time to check identification is correct and sheep are in good health. The gold standard is a four to six-week quarantine period to protect against disease.

Worms and sheep scab: The quarantine recommendation for the yard on arrival is to drench with 4-AD (Zolvix) or 5-SI (Startect) wormer AND inject with 1% moxidectin (Cydectin or Zermex 1%) OR drench with 4-AD (Zolvix) or 5-SI (Startect) AND drench with moxidectin oral (Cydectin or Zermex) AND plunge dip in OP. These recommendations differ if Footvax has been used or is to be used, so please discuss this with your vet. For more information go to www.scops.org.uk.

Liver fluke: The quarantine recommendation is to use closantel (Flukiver) drench or nitroxynil (Trodax) injection and repeat six weeks later. Hold sheep inside for 24-48 hours after treatment, turn out to land that has had sheep grazing that year and has no fluke habitat. Keep separate for at least three weeks. For more information go to www.scops.org.uk.

Footrot: The quarantine recommendation is to check the whole flock to identify infected animals and administer antibiotics to individual sheep and isolate. Re-examine infected sheep one to two weeks post treatment and administer second treatment if required. Check the whole flock one to two weeks post initial inspection. Assess the isolated, treated individuals for a third time about two weeks post second treatment and cull any stock requiring a third treatment.

Flock Health Plan: Meet with your vet or animal health advisor as soon as possible to establish a flock health plan, so you can time other treatments (such as footbathing or vaccination for clostridial diseases) with your quarantine treatments and subsequent worm and fluke control.

Housing: During winter months, or extreme weather conditions, certain breeds of sheep may be housed in barns with open fronted pens or in-by fields provided there is good natural shelter such as hedges. The sheep maybe housed for approximately three to four months depending on weather conditions and the state of grassland and soil. Bedding should be of deep-bedded straw or of alternative bedding materials such as wood shavings. For stocking density and access to water and feed spaces, please use the Defra code of practice:-

Type of Sheep Straw-bedded floor (sq.m)
Lowland ewes during pregnancy (60-90kg per head) 1.2-1.4
Lowland ewes with lambs up to six weeks of age 2.0-2.2
Hill ewes (45-65kg per head) 1.0-1.2
Hill ewes with lambs up to six weeks of age 1.8-2.0
Lambs up to 12 weeks of age 0.5-0.6
Lambs up to 12 months of age 0.75-0.9
Rams 1.5-2.0

Grassland: When grassland is capable of supporting livestock the sheep will be turned out to pasture. Typical stocking densities on productive grass can be approximately six to 10 sheep per acre. However, the stocking density will vary according to climate, topography and grass quality (both farm specific and seasonal variations). Grassland management should include rotational grazing alongside faecal egg counting and appropriate worming regimes to avoid parasitic burden and risk of wormer resistance. Strip grazing may be employed on larger fields and where fodder crops are grown.

Nutrition: During winter months the sheep’s diet should be considered and grass supplemented with one or more than one of the following: good quality hay, haylage/drier silage, fodder beet or other roots, concentrates/cereals and mineral licks. During summer months, generally, grazing grass is all that is required. Access to water must be provided at all times. The diet is dependent upon season, stage of productivity, availability of feed and individual requirements. It is advisable to body score the sheep on a monthly basis, thus allowing the weight and condition of the sheep to be closely monitored. The feed rations maybe altered accordingly to maintain the required optimum body score of 3.5. Condition scoring is the process of evaluating the animals muscle:fat development. The scoring system is considered good husbandry practice and provides a guide to the health status of individual animals. Find out more from Eblex.

Routine Treatments: It is sensible to acquaint yourself with common ailments in sheep, but the list below suggests the priorities in terms of routine treatments.

  • Worming: Parasite control in sheep has changed in recent years in light of the increasing resistance problem of parasites to modern wormers. The sheep should be allowed to stand for 12 hours, to allow the stomach contents to be emptied, and then wormed according to manufacturer’s guidelines. This includes worming the sheep by individual weight or if not then giving the dose for the largest in the group to all sheep. Dosing guns should be checked prior to dosing for delivery of the correct dose. Once wormed the sheep should be returned to their original pasture for 24 hours to allow reinfection with susceptible worms. The sheep must not be transported to new pasture and then wormed. It is important to speak to your vet or animal health advisor about worming plans, and to visit www.scops.org.uk.
  • Faecal Sampling: Current recommendations advise regular dung sampling to monitor faecal egg counts (FEC). A six weekly representative sample should be either sent for evaluation or analysed in-house. The sample should consist of 10 individual samples of at least 3g weight (5g where fluke is tested for as well) these will be mixed by the lab and they should be fresh. A similar sample (faeces from several sheep pooled together) should also be tested one-week week after worming. The sample must be analysed within 48 hours of sampling. If a high number of eggs are found then the sheep should be wormed – typically over 500 eggs per gram of faecal matter should be a cause for concern. If exceptionally high numbers of eggs are counted, especially after recent worming, please alert your vet. If egg counts are low then the period between worming may be extended until the threshold level of 500 eggs/g is reached. This method accepts that sheep will carry a parasitic burden but at a low enough level not to effect health and may reduce the likelihood of resistance. The sheep may be wormed as they enter winter housing.
  • Foot care: It is imperative that the animals receive a high standard of health care at all times and the importance of good foot care is crucial. Having quarantined incoming animals for footrot, prevent future problems by moving water troughs and feeding areas around the field, considering the use of hydrated lime at gathering areas and gateways, using a mobile handling system/mobile pens to prevent animals gathering repeatedly in the same area, and consider vaccination as part of a strategy to eradicate footrot. There are various different substances for footbaths. The manufacturer’s instructions must be adhered to, as different products will attract different recommendations. The use of a large calendar or diary to mark treatment days for various groups is highly recommended.
  • Shearing: Apart from wool-shedding breeds, sheep require shearing annually between May-August and this should only be performed by competent personnel. If you possess more than four adult sheep, the Wool Marketing Scheme requires you to register with the BWMB to market your fleece wool – go to www.britishwool.org.uk. There may be alternatives to the marketing your wool such as private or specialist sale e.g. rare breeds fleeces, but the Wool Marketing Board should be consulted as to statutory requirements.
  • General health checks: Whether the animals are out at grass or housed, all animals should be inspected a minimum of once a day and whenever performing routine husbandry tasks.

Disposal of dead stock: Any animal found dead on the farm or euthanised on site must be disposed of by approved methods. Carcases should be stored securely and must be taken to or collected by an approved knackerman, hunt kennel, incinerator or renderer, either by private arrangement or under the National Fallen Stock Scheme at the earliest opportunity. Find out more about your legal requirements here.

Animal Health and Welfare: Find out about your legal animal health and welfare requirements here.