This is the time of year when our waiting list for lambs is growing. Whenever I’m contacted about breeding stock, my first question is always “Please tell me a little bit about what you’re planning to do with your sheep. What do you want them for?”
The answer to this single question will guide me as I try to help this person build the very best flock that we can produce. Not everyone is looking for the same thing, and although we sift through our own lambs for the criteria we think is important to the breed, even those lambs fall along a spectrum: some have better fleece than others, some grow more quickly, some are more fertile, etc.
I’ve learned through the years to listen carefully to prospective shepherds, because no matter what they want to do, they nearly always tell me that they want the same thing: very high fertility with extremely fast-growing lambs and fine fleeces that have long staple lengths. The bottom line is that they want it ALL! Let’s be honest, though. We are discussing living creatures. The simple fact is that no living creatures — not even the sheep from our flock — are perfect. None of them is the epitome of perfection; each has strengths and weaknesses. But any adults or lambs that we sell at full price (not as culls) are better than our flock average at the time.
I understand the desire to get the best of the best. Logic tells us that if we bring in the very best, we will then put the ram in with the ewes and get the very best. The honest truth: this isn’t always true. Genetics and inheritance are funny things. Even if you have two particularly wonderful animals in your breeding pair, there are hundreds of thousands of genes that need to line up just right to create perfection (as if that were possible!). In reality, those genes don’t always align in the ways we would like. Besides that, there’s intense work involved in actually producing that rare near-perfect sheep, and if any of us happen to get one, believe me, we’ll likely decide to keep it for our own flock. Finally, no one could likely afford the price of such perfection, if it did exist!
I’ve been trying to explain to new shepherds that their place in all of this is not the selection of perfect sheep for their foundation flock. Instead the goal is to get an assortment of really good ewes and then select a ram who complements them — a ram who will hopefully make the next generation better. It is by repeatedly putting together good sheep who improve the next generation that we come closer, bit by bit, to perfection. And that forward progress should be our goal. We will, of course, never achieve perfection. And the concept of perfection can become a moving target, changing as we make improvements in what we have.
When I started our Romeldale flock, most of my first sheep were other shepherds’ culls: sheep that no longer measured up in their flocks and had to go. I bought the best ram I could find, and the next generation was an improvement over what I had originally purchased. Slowly over time we have developed my vision in this flock, always moving each generation in the direction of breed improvement. I know two other people who started their flocks in the same way, and both now have flocks that sell some of the most beautiful Romeldales around. None of us started with perfection, just “good enough” (and not even that if you had asked their previous owners — those cull sheep were no longer considered “good enough” there!). We turned what we had into our vision of the future for the breed.
The bottom line is that it doesn’t really matter where you start this journey of shepherding. What matters is where you go once you’ve begun. If you don’t know how to manipulate the genetics you have, even the best of the best won’t be good enough in the long run. Yet if you pay attention and learn a bit about what makes a breed worth keeping, that information plus the manipulation of the genetics you have can take you and your flock far. You don’t really need the best of the best. You just need a starter flock, a bit of knowledge, the desire to make a difference, and some time. Oh, and a whole lot of dedication to the flock (and don’t forget the hay!). After that, you’re on your way!