Wiltshire Sheep for Lifestyle Blocks

Wiltshire sheep shed their own fleece. Back when we bought our block and I was researching sheep breeds, that alone was enough to convince me we should give polled (hornless) Wiltshires a go.

The remnants of last year's fleece

I’m not alone. The breed is popular among lifestyle block owners who either can’t shear or have trouble finding a shearer who’s willing to work with tiny flocks.

A descendant of the English Wiltshire Horn, one of the world’s oldest surviving sheep breeds, the Wiltshire has another large tick in its favour: it produces beautiful meat.  The lamb is melt-in-your-mouth delectable and a slow-roasted shoulder of hogget is sublime.

For this reason, Wiltshires are sometimes used as cross-breeding stock on standard farms to improve carcase quality. And that means they fetch good prices at the saleyards.

Ease of care

We sourced our Wiltshires from an organic breeder in Southland. They definitely didn’t come cheap but they handle our cold winters, they’re very resistant to parasite infestations, they generally lamb easily and the ewes are great mothers.

In 2013, we had six sets of twins and three single lambs from nine ewes – a twinning rate of two-thirds.

The breed is very hardy and does well on poor pasture. If allowed, these sheep will supplement their feed by browsing. Ours do a good job of keeping blackberry in check.

The wool is shed in small tufts, so it’s not really good for anything other than getting caught in fence wire and looking pretty. The texture is more like coarse hair than wool. It doesn’t contain much lanolin and it’s not greasy to the touch. Wiltshires don’t have the pungent odour that characterises the wool breeds.

Some factors to consider

If you think all this sounds great and you’re getting ready to rush off and acquire a flock of your own, consider these before you commit:

1. Rates of fleece shedding vary

Not all Wiltshires shed all their fleece, all the time.

Our wether hogget shed about 5% last summer.  One of our ewes didn’t shed at all in 2012/13 but shed around 60% in 2013/14. Another of our ewes has shed 100% for two years running. The rest usually shed 40-75%.

Most commonly, they’ll shed on their flanks and legs, leaving a strip of cover down their backs.

If you’re only interested in Wiltshires for their meat, shedding rates don’t matter so much. However, these could become an issue if you’re breeding for sale.

While many breeders say that tail docking isn’t necessary, animals that don’t shed around their back quarters could be vulnerable to fly-strike and may need to be dagged. We haven’t had to do this yet but it’s something we’re aware of.

Wiltshire Ewes

Wool loss from 100% (R) to 15% (back)

2. Shade needed in summer

Fleece shedding begins in late spring at our place and continues through the summer.

Once the wool is shed, the animal is left with a fine down covering and the skin is visible. Therefore, it’s imperative that Wiltshires have access to plenty of shade over summer and early autumn while the fleece grows back.

We had to euthanase one of our ewes in the hot summer of 2012/13 because she developed a melanoma on her flank. We wondered if this had something to do with higher UV levels at our 700m altitude. So far, it’s been an isolated case but we’re very conscious of the shade issue, particularly during lambing.

3. Less handling can be an issue

One of the downsides of not shearing sheep is that the animals don’t get handled much.

Our organically-reared Wiltshires don’t need drenching, so the only time they’re yarded is when we’re trimming their feet, castrating ram lambs, or loading them on the trailer for the saleyards.

Given that adult rams weigh 120kg and adult ewes weigh up to 80kg (Romney ewes average 60-65kg by comparison), Wiltshires can be difficult to restrain and handle, particularly if you’re inexperienced.

They’re also excellent jumpers, so make sure you have good, sturdy yards.