In 2016, we bought 8 Hebridean ewes and lambs... with a BOGOF offer of TwoSocks (a Jacobean, Hebridean X Jacob) thrown into the mix as a thank you. We didn't really think the decision through too heavily- a classic "Anna" move- as most people who know me will tell you (i'm quite bad/good at taking a sledge hammer to things before thinking it through- sometimes you've just got to make that first move!). A few years before we bought the first ewes, my grandfather and i were chatting about the Scotherbs herb waste and what we were to do with it?! Could we buy sheep and feed them the herbs? With a laugh, we decided that they should be Hebrideans and we would call them "Herb-rideans". Oh how little seeds sown grow...
They plodded through their first year- a few of them arriving in lamb. Naively (and with very little sheep experience) i wondered down to say hello to the sheep one morning- and they'd all lambed!! Beginners luck, and technically a bad introduction to lambing- as i had to do very little, and because of that, learnt very little. We'd kept sheep throughout our childhood- but most of our experience lay in holding gates, or bottle feeding the orphans. The following years lambing didn't go quite as well- the field was too big, the weather too bad... the lambing not quite as "tight". A unfortunately memorable lambing- but one where big lessons were learnt, and lessons you don't forget for the next.
Six years have passed- and this year, our total Hebridean flock numbered over 70! A slow increase as far as sheep farming goes- a laughable headcount to many- but exciting and unintended when it came to our Guardswell Herb-rideans. In 2021- perhaps the lockdown was good for the Hebrideans- we lambed at 184% Instead of parsley, coriander, chervil and mint waste, they now feast upon meadow herbs. Hebrideans are wonderful conservation grazers- they nibble away at the meadow, are happy to eat “low quality” forage, and are really hardy. Twice yearly we move them into our “planted” meadow- as we slowly turn the rest of our improved rye grassland into species rich grazing. Here they strip the meadow back to the ground- swapping out the original idea of culinary herbs for yarrow, plantain and sheep sorrel. Meadows- in order to support less dominant wild flower species- require the organic matter to be removed annually in order to keep the soil low in nutrient- instead of driving heavy machinery onto the land, the hebrideans do this for us. This doesn’t mean the soil is in any way “poor quality”- the perennial herbs and plants in there are undisturbed, their roots staying in situ forever (as far as we’re concerned/as long as that plant lives) and drop down deep tap roots- we’re not anti-docken here. The Hebrideans are almost entirely grass (and herb) fed- with a small amount of concentrate (ewe nuts, or museli) being fed purely to keep them trained to a bucket.
In a true breed sense, they shouldn't be fed any concentrate in order to keep to breed standard. They're to be hardy, semi wild (pretty hard to work with), lean sheep- who happily overwinter with little extra supplementary nutrition. There is much debate about hebrideans being too "pampered" and them moving away from breed standard- not just in their feed options, but also in how and where they are lambed. The 184% isn't really what you should or even would want to expect. They generally lamb average sized singles- and do so comfortably and without much intervention. But 2021 saw at least 20% of our ewes being assisted (something that had never been required before- and generally means that the lamb would have died, and potentially the ewe, without assistance) and much much larger lambs (the reason for most of the interventions). Perhaps an outcome of more time during lockdown for me- a greater focus on "feeding the ewes up" when pregnant, but also in their pre pregnancy condition being paid more attention. Our Hebrideans lamb outside- a brilliant breed characteristic- and generally like to do so undisturbed (generally about 4.30am!). But some breeders are lambing inside- lambs that might not have previously survived, not as "hardy" lambs- surviving. So- whats the right answer? Perhaps this is just the evolution of the breed; evolving with our improving knowledge. Or, should we purposefully leave them to be a little more wild. I think perhaps our approach is humane and acknowledges breed standard- we wont "overfeed" them again, ensuring their lambs are an appropriate size- but equally we wont stand back and watch a ewe suffer or a lamb die if there is anything that we can do to stop that happening.
Our Hebrideans are wildflower supporting, carbon sequestering wonders- who also provide us with beautiful fleece each year, as well as a very small number of hogget boxes (which also means sheepskins and horns). Hebridean sheep are very slow growing- so dont quite reach a large enough weight for going to the abattoir until they are closer to 18 months old, and look very much like a sheep- not a lamb. In previous years, wethers- castrated males- were the ones with that destiny, however- in 2021 we decided to leave our males “entire”. When they reached sexual maturity, they were moved down to a field next to Grans house- to keep them away from their mothers and sisters, and any unintended consequences. Its a slightly trickier path to walk, as you risk the meat being “tainted” and need to make sure they are away before that point (which is about 18 months). They certainly grow larger, but there is the added management time having a split flock across two locations. So one to think over.
2022 also saw a first for us- we carefully picked 4 tups... straight backs, well set horns... a new adventure for the Hebrideans at Guardswell Farm.
Rearing animals for meat is hard- we really care for them- we check them daily, we know their mothers by name. Without fail, the day that they go to the abattoir is really really hard. But- if we are going to eat meat, this is the type of meat that we want to, and should, eat. Slow growing, small scale, carbon sequestering, high welfare, soil building meat. Not factory farmer, low welfare, conveyor belt and packed in plastic meat. We also know that eating meat isn't for everyone, and that it conjures a strong emotional response- and we absolutely acknowledge and wholeheartedly respect other opinions and nutritional decisions made by others.
We now have a small number of our 2022 Hebridean Hogget boxes available to buy- so if you think that this might be of interest to you, please drop us a note to email@example.com
If you are interested in learning more about Hebridean Sheep- why not take a look at the Hebridean Sheep Society