Winter comes early in Norway, however, the schedules of sheep are generally a little different than for warmer countries.
In Norway, before sheep go into the barn they are often sheared. We do this in Australia in the Spring time so the sheep don’t have to suffer through a Summer with a thick wooly fleece. However, it is usual for Norwegian farmers to shear before the Winter. This is mainly to keep the sheep cleaner in the barn. For warmth, usually the sheep huddle together in their pens. It is amazing how much heat sheep can generate. They can heat up our whole barn and make it cosy for the chickens too.
Our wild sheep have a natural shedding in Spring that gets rid of the old tattered Winter fleece so we don’t need to shear. We don’t sheer before winter either because our sheep are outside all Winter long. They certainly need their fleece to keep warm but the outside is also a lot cleaner than a barn. You’ll also notice in the pictures that the sheep have a layer of snow or frost permanently on their backs. This is a good sign that the sheep’s natural warming ability is working well. Their wool is so insulating that their bodies don’t loose heat and so the snow on their backs doesn’t even melt away. Our lavvu shelter also provides a warm and dry space for our sheep to rest their legs from the snow.
Because our sheep need more energy to keep warm we have to feed them more but this isn’t a bother. We make plenty of silage (fermented hay) from our own fields. It is easier for the sheep to drink liquid water however this is hard for us to keep going. It has been around -20C lately and so liquid water freezes in just 30mins. But the sheep can survive on eating snow. They need to eat a lot more of it in comparison to drinking water and they need to use more energy heating it up in their tummies but they can have it wherever and whenever they want.
Usually for Northern Hemisphere sheep mating is done in October, in the fading light, so the lambs are born in March when Spring is well set in (as sheep pregnancies last about five months). In Arctic Norway our fading light starts too early. The Midnight Sun finishes about the 22 July and then it is a steep decline to meet the dark season (24 hours of darkness for two months) by November. Mating in September or October does not suit Norwegian conditions. We have such a long Winter and the snow doesn’t melt away until May (in the North at least, where we are). It is best for our lambs to be born after the snow has melted, or near to, so they can venture outside – our lambs are likely to be born in the lavvu. This means that our mating season is usually in December in Norway.
We had kept our ram, Ramstein, in a pen closer to the barn in Autumn so he didn’t get frisky with our sheep too early. Getting him to the girl pen was going to be a task. We didn’t want to use a truck/trailer as it was a bit excessive for the job and we wanted to learn to do everything without heavy vehicles and machinery to conserve our land. We didn’t want to drag him and he wasn’t leash trained. The next best thing was to lure him with food. I had built up a good relationship with him over Autumn that whenever he saw me he thought ‘food!’. So with a loaf of bread I lured him through fences, around the barn and across two paddocks. He was a bit reluctant to go into the girl pen so I went in and started feeding the girls (Fab Force Five). A little jealousy goes a long way. Ramstein bounded into the pen.
I was a little nervous of him as even though I had hand fed him for some months it was always through a fence. Animals are always unpredictable, even if you know them really well. In the new pen he didn’t have an understanding of personal space (and still doesn’t) so I was trying to make him keep his distance by throwing his bread further away. The girls are so comfortable with me that they jump up and lean against me like dogs. I don’t think I’d like Ramstien to learn this. This behavior of the Fab Force Five used to make me concerned as we want them to maintain their skittishness to keep from danger. However, I’ve learnt from this ram-moving exercise that sheep are smarter than I first thought (at least this breed).
When I lured Ramstein, Moose was helping me. We were wearing the same clothes (like ‘Bill and Ben’ – there was a special at the farmers store) and so we looked exactly the same – red top and blue bottoms. But Ramstein would not follow Moose and whenever Moose got too close (like 50 metres) the ram would run away. I would then have to go and lure the ram back on track. Ramstein definitely preferred me and could tell the difference between me and Moose to the extend that he got temperamental when Moose got too close. Animals are funny.
Of course, Norwegian farmers do things, such as mating and transferring from pen to pen, a little different. They have bigger flocks, equipment, tractors, etc. For mating it is common for a vet to artifically inseminate the ewes with semen from the National Gene Bank. This insures diversity and ‘mating’. This means that rams are not essential to sheep farming at all. But we like having a ram around, especially ones as cute as villsau rams.
We haven’t seen Ramstein do his thing but fertilizing naturally can take time. Even though mating season started mid-December for us, ewes have a fertile cycle of 17 days so it could take up to 34 days+ for all the ewes to be mated. We need to keep Ramstein in with the girls for a couple of months to have better chances of all the ewes falling pregnant. Before lambing season in May, Ramsteim will be lured back into his pen again.
All in all, wintering the wild sheep in a sustainable way has been much better than expected – outside living, snow for water, lavvu for shelter. We will be breeding a tough little flock over the next few years. Arctic Norway is the new frontier of farming!