What is tupping?
Tupping is the mating of sheep, and is usually (!) arranged and controlled by the shepherd. Some people will let the ram (tup) run with the ewes all year round, and will let nature take its course, but those who are looking to achieve certain traits or characteristics will make all the decisions – not leave it to the sheep!
When to tup?
This is one of those questions that is similar to ‘how long is a piece of string?’ The rule of thumb for general purpose breeding, in line with sheep preferences, is put the rams in on Bonfire Night to have April Fool’s lambs.
If breeding commercially for meat (sorry, to the vegetarians!), shepherds will also take into account the seasonality of lamb sales. For example, they may be aiming for the Christmas or Easter market for the best prices. To do this, it would be necessary to work out how long it would take to fatten the lambs (which depends on what they are being fed), and then add on the gestation period (152-155 days), and finally add 4-6 weeks on to that for tupping. Achieving the timing can be done with hormone treatments or with some sheep breeds which will breed all through the year (e.g. Portland).
Selecting a ram
Selecting a ram will be different for each breeder; those just wanting lambs to fatten may choose a ram that has more commercial traits: fast growing lambs and prolificacy. Those breeding pedigree sheep will be looking for the right bloodline and key traits, and the same applies for those breeding for colours. Regardless of the final desired outcome, the ram should always be fit and healthy, with correct conformation and good teeth and feet.
Unless it’s a question of a particular bloodline, there is no point in running a substandard ram with a flock of good ewes, as the aim is to continue improving stock. On the other side of the coin, if you have some substandard ewes that you really want to breed due to bloodline/colour, the ram will be vital for helping to improve the lambs. Where possible, it is advisable to buy a proven ram, who has already worked one year. Some people may be happy to take a risk, as buying a ram is investment for the future. In 2009, the Texel ram, Deverondale Perfection sold for the current all-time record of £231,000! More normal prices range between £250 and £1,000, and for beginners it is always a good idea to buy a ram who knows his job.
Flushing and raddle
Flushing is the term for feeding up and bringing ewes into the best condition before tupping – often this will mean letting hill sheep down onto better pasture or perhaps adding to the diet with supplementary feed or a malt and vitamin lick. Thus the ewes will be all ready to do their best with the rams. Leaving them in an adjoining field also tends to whet their appetites, on both sides, which will help to co-ordinate the lambing timings as ewes will cycle fortnightly – hence the rams are usually in for six weeks overall, though it is possible to change the ram after three weeks (they get tired and some will scarcely eat due to being so busy!). Determining who is the father, with multiple or successive rams, can be achieved by using a harness with coloured chalk raddle on the ram, a different one for each ram or period of time, so the ewes will get a mark on their backs when served. Even if it rains (and raddle will wash off quite easily), when the rams do not mark ewes any more it means they don’t need to!
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