You may remember, if you’re part of the small but fervent readership of this blog from back in the day- we have a history of livestock breeding going…shall we say…not EXACTLY to plan. In fact, the very first post on here discussed our ability to tell whether or not our rabbits were pregnant.
Well, I have to say- although we’ve got more years under our belt, much more livestock, and a couple of full freezers to prove it- this is still more of an art than a science.
Which is where sheep balls come in.
Almost 3 years ago now, to celebrate my new Big Job ™- my delightful sweetheart bought me 2 Tunis ewes to celebrate. The very best kind of present, I think, and one I’d been pining over basically as long as I knew there were sheep to have. Even as a child, I was obsessed with Mother Earth News and the Firefox books, and learned to knit from my grandma at a very early age. Animals that produced wool (and meat, and milk!)? Sign me up.
So we brought Ethyl and Harriet, who were named after cars at our beloved festival, home here to the farm. They were just 6 months old- full of bounce and sproing, ready to eat grass and make my heart happy. That first year, we didn’t put much energy into getting them a Gentleman Caller- as sheep do better with more than a full year before their first mating. And we lost Harriet that first year to an unknown illness, but replaced her with Lucy NewSheep before she could pine away from loneliness (yes, this is a thing).
Last winter, though, we were ready to get down to business. I found a Tunis ram on Craiglist (like you do) within an hour’s drive- we brought him home in the covered truck bed and got ready for some serious sheep action.
Now, for sheep, as long as they’ve done the deed, you can be pretty sure they’re pregnant. So we picked up a fancy new mating harness for Neville the Ram, installed a bright blue crayon on it, and hoped for the best. A few days later: SUCCESS! The girls had bright blue splotches on their rear ends, evidence that a ram had been up on there.
And then we waited, built a barn (the Development half of R&D, that is), bought lambing supplies, and obsessively observed the shape and size of ewes in general, and their vulvas and udders in particular (yeah, that was totally me). I don’t even WANT to tell you how many photos of sheep vulvas I had on my phone, by the time we finally gave up. FYI, should this come up for you: sheep vulvas change quite a bit of the course of their cycle. Even if, as it happens, they’re not pregnant. Also sheep are generally not amused by you repeatedly picking up their tail to look at their vulva. So. No lambs. And as we continued to observed Neville over the year, turning him over for foot care and such, it became clear that the sheep balls we SWEAR existed when when we brought him home, had shrunken to the point where they were very hard to find.
This is very bad news in sheep reproduction, as fertility is directly tied to sheep scrotal circumference. All the best rams, it seems, have big big balls– 32-40 centimeters is apparently the range you’re looking for. Poor Neville never really had it in him, as it happens…so we renamed him Neville the Infertile and demoted him to wether, a neutered male kept often for a companion animal for the ram, and moved on to finding a new Gentleman Caller for Ethyl and Lucy.
Enter Jamie the Red, the new guy around town- who needed a new home because he was so ready to go, he wouldn’t stop harassing his pasture mates. Jamie spent his first 2 weeks in an enclosure next to the girls, where he paced back and forth incessantly, curled his lip (apparently very sexy for sheep), and generally let everyone know he was READY for his one job. Everything went according to plan…and now, we are waiting. Again.
IF Jamie did the job, we’re expecting lambs in early March, as sheep gestation is about 5 months. And the girls have started drinking a TON more water than usual, which is supposed to be a sign. We’ll know more after shearing in a couple of weeks, as it’s hard to tell much from shape when they’ve got a full coat of wool on. And last year, our sheep were, as it happens, both fat AND fluffy. They’re PROBABLY pregnant. I think.
Fingers crossed- and I’m feeling really good about it. But as we’ve clearly demonstrated- you really NEVER know.
hours minutes seconds
Lambs on the ground