Have you ever wondered why farmers paint their sheep?
When traveling with my groups around Ireland, Scotland and Wales I am often asked why the sheep have patches of color painted on their wool. You would be surprised how a flock of painted sheep in a pasture can bring out the oohs and aahs of almost any tourist. So, let’s take a look at why there are painted sheep.
Most often, farmers “paint” their sheep for identification purposes. When traveling in sheep country, you’ll notice open fields blanketed in deep green grass and dotted with sheep. These pastures are usually enclosed by stone walls or wire fences and are shared by multiple farmers. When it comes time to claim ownership of the animals roaming around the hundreds of acres, a customized painted sheep is easy to identify.
Sheep are also painted during the mating season. A ram is usually fitted with a bag of dye placed around its neck and chest. During mating, when the ram mounts the ewe a bit of dye will be deposited on the ewe’s upper back. This way, the farmer knows which of the ewes have been impregnated and moves them on to another field away from the ram.
The Little Lambs
Sheep are “short-day” breeders. God intended sheep to mate in the fall and give birth in the spring, when the weather would be more favorable for their survival. In the fall, when the days become shorter, a hormone in the ewe’s brain triggers the reproductive system into action. During the ewe’s fertile period she can come into heat every 17 days or until the fertility period is over. When in heat, the ewe flirts with the ram by wagging her tail, nudging or cuddling. When detecting a ewe in heat, the ram characteristically responds by lifting his head in the air and curling his upper lip. Then, I suppose he goes for it… time and time again. The ram is also driven by nature. A mature ram can mate with 100 or more ewes during the mating season.
The ewe’s gestation period is about five months. Ewes usually give birth to one to three lambs in the spring. This birthing process in commonly known as lambing. During the summer, while the lambs are maturing, the sheep are shorn a couple of times and the wool is sent to market. As fall approaches, the farmer determines which lambs will go to market and which will be retained for breeding. Those going to market before reaching one year of age are considered lambs and their meat is referred to as “lamb”. Occasionally, the lamb goes to market after one year, in which case the meat is referred to as “mutton”.
During my travels in Europe, I’ve found that Ireland appears to paint its sheep more often than other countries. I have no published data to back up this statement, only my personal observations. Sheep flocks in Ireland, Scotland and the UK do not typically have shepherds watching over them. It seems the sheep are left to roam in large fields and the farmer (and his dog) check up on them every now and then. I’ve noticed there is always a shepherd and a dog watching over flocks in Greece, Sicily and other Mediterranean locales.
Sheep in Ireland
Since Ireland, in my experience, has the most “painted sheep,” here are some additional facts about Irish sheep. The top five counties in terms of sheep numbers in Ireland are: Donegal, Galway, Mayo, Kerry and Wicklow. Each of these counties are located in hilly mountainous areas. Half of Ireland’s sheep flocks consist of 50 ewes or fewer. This is quite small compared to international standards. For example, Scotland averages 200 ewes per flock and the world’s largest exporter, New Zealand, averages 1400. When going to market, Ireland only retains 30% of it sheep for domestic consumption. The remaining meat is exported mostly to the UK and France. According to the 2014 Irish livestock census, the island has about 5.1 million sheep, ranking it 51st in the world. Numerically, this is quite small. For example, the United States (number 50) has 5.2 million sheep. However, when you take into consideration the human population and land mass, it just feels like there are more sheep in Ireland than many other countries.
Sheep, and especially little lambs, always seem to dig at the hearts of the folks in my tour groups. Adding a customized paint job tends to elicit even more animated oohs and aahs! In this article, I’ve discussed why sheep are painted, provided a few statistics about sheep and mentioned personal observations while traveling in Europe. Sheep provide wool and hides for clothing, meat for human consumption and lanolin for beauty and health products. Finally, just to leave a good taste in your mouth, 1.3% of the world’s cheeses are products of sheep’s milk. So, the next time you try a piece of Roquefort, Feta, Ricotta or Pecorino Romano, remember it all comes from the sheep.
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David McGuffin is Founder and CEO of David McGuffin’s Exploring Europe, Inc., based in Middleburg, Florida. You can connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and YouTube. David spends his time in Europe organizing and leading small group and independent tours to European destinations. In business since 2001, David has provided exceptional travel opportunities to several thousand satisfied customers. You can find out more about David and his European tours at his website, http://davidmcguffin.com.