Selection and sheep

An online dictionary defines selection as “carefully choosing something as being the best or most suitable.” When it comes to sheep, there are many factors that go into the process and, in one way or another, some sheep are going to be selected for or against. A shepherd can’t avoid selection; the question is who will be selected and according to which standards.

Regardless of what the shepherd does, there’s also the matter of natural selection. We lose a few lambs every year to things such as illness or being cast on a hillside, and sometimes to a high level of internal parasites or birth defects. I do everything I can to save those lambs, but in the end, there will always be a few that die. Quite often these are lambs that I’ve wanted for our flock because of traits that I hope to incorporate in our breeding. Yet if the lamb dies for any of the above reasons, nature has selected against that individual — it was too weak, too prone to illness, or not smart enough to avoid physical dangers. This same selection occurs in the wild, and the flock is stronger for it. A coyote will often select the smallest, most anemic, or weakest of the flock as its target — a case of natural selection. In the long run, maintaining the weakest members only weakens the flock as a whole.

A shepherd learns to select from among the lambs born to the flock. In the early years when a shepherd is building a flock, many keep every ewe lamb that’s born. The flock as a whole does not generally improve during this stage; it only grows in number. Eventually the shepherd will come up against a limitation of resources — time, space, grazing area, or finances — and the flock will be as large as it can be, given the circumstances. At that point, the shepherd must decide to either stop breeding the ewes or begin some type of selection program. Once new lambs are born into a too-large flock, the shepherd must decide which sheep will go. The more lambs that are integrated into the flock, the more adults that must move out to keep the numbers steady. This selection, if done wisely, will begin to improve the flock’s traits. It’s not an easy thing to choose between keeping old friends or cute little bouncy lambs, but it is an integral part of what a shepherd does.

So how do we choose here at Peeper Hollow? First, there are traits that go towards making a good sheep: correct legs that don’t toe in or out and are are parallel from the knee down on the front legs and essentially perpendicular to the ground from the hock down on the back legs; a straight topline with smooth transitions at the shoulder and neck (lumpy shoulders can get caught in the birth canal, so it’s not a trait you want passed down!); narrower at the shoulder, good wide hips, and good capacity for lungs, digestion, and reproduction (particularly in ewes); and an easy and safe interaction with humans (a dangerous young sheep will generally only become worse with age). Any sheep with a fault in any of these areas will cause problems for the shepherd and the flock. The first selection is for good, sturdy sheep.

The next selection should be for the breed standard, if the flock is purebred. Because the flock’s breed standard(s) helps set the goals for selection, a new shepherd should have the standards essentially memorized. For example, the breed standard for Romeldales calls for an annual staple length of 4-6″ (in some places, it’s listed as 3-6″). When I bought my first Romeldales, only one ewe had an annual staple over 3″, so one of my first goals in this breed was to increase staple length. In the ten years that we have been working with the Romeldales, I’ve selected strongly for longer staples; our annual measurements now generally fall between 4-5″ and sometimes longer. We have found that slow but steady progress is much better than a sudden jump in one lamb, since that sudden improvement seldom migrates into the next generation.

It’s important to note that selecting against a breed standard is different than selecting against the traits that make a good sheep. The breed standard describes the traits that make the breed identifiable — those traits that have made that particular breed important in the sheep industry and different from other sheep. An individual sheep may not reflect the entire breed standard, but the goal is to have enough of the standard evident to easily identify the breed of the animal — and to continue to breed so that the conformation to breed standard is constantly improving within the flock. While it is critical to have good sheep, it’s a goal to have each one perfectly reflect its breed’s standard.

Selecting is not an easy thing to do as a shepherd, but if we don’t actively make a selection, eventually someone or something else will make the selection for us. If we select only our “favorite” or “friendliest” sheep to stay, based on temperament, we may find that our flock is no longer filled with good sturdy sheep and instead brings a growing history of health issues, poor weight gains, and/or poor wool production. In the end, we get what we select for. We may as well reap the benefits that astute selection can bring.

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