Fleece markings

I was inspired to write this page as I was recently asked by a customer about the coloured markings on sheep’s fleeces.

It all started with me selling a rug with a mark showing on the fleece.  The customer had wondered what it was and whether I could recommend a product to remove it.

Having kept sheep for a number of years and living in sheep country, seeing sheep dotted around with coloured spots on their fleeces is not an unusual sight.  In fact, it would be more unusual to see a sheep with a pristine and spot-free fleece.  With this in mind, I must admit, I don’t really notice these markings anymore.  Most of the fleeces I work with have a mark on them somewhere and depending on where this is, it could end up appearing on one of the rugs that I make.

However, now that I had fleece markings swirling around in the forefront of my mind, it occurred to me that while I see these as perfectly normal, other people might not.  They might wonder why farmers would go to the trouble of splashing paint all over a lovely fleece.  If I put my “non farmer” hat on I could see that spraying sheep with coloured blotches might seem an odd thing to do.

Now, I’m pretty sure there isn’t a stain remover around that can remove livestock marker, (I’ve tried and failed to scrub these off in the past), but I decided to put the question out to a craft forum I belong to just to be sure.  Sure enough, as I suspected, no one came up with anything, (at least not that you can buy on the domestic market).  Once a fleece has a paint mark on it, it is there to stay until shearing.

So I wrote back to the lady with the query and explained that there wasn’t anything I knew of that could remove the stain.  I explained that I could arrange a refund or make her a new rug if she decided not to keep the original one.  I also included some information about why we mark fleeces including a short explanation about tupping time which can sometimes result in the ewe being covered in paint from head to hoof!

A little while later, the lady sent me a reply thanking me for all this info.  To my delight, she said that her new-found knowledge about fleece markings had made her decide to keep the rug and to cherish it all the more.  She told me that knowing why the stain was there had put her mind at rest and as a result she now saw the mark as something unique and special giving extra character to the rug.

This brought to mind one of my favourite quotations: “when you look at a field of dandelions, you can either see a hundred weeds or a thousand wishes”.

The customer’s open-minded response and friendly attitude the whole way through our email conversations made me feel happy and light-hearted.  I danced around the kitchen thinking how glad I was that one of my rugs was living with such a lovely sounding person.

As a result, I decided to write an information page all about fleece markings.

Below I’ve outlined the main reasons.  Please note, not all farmers mark their sheep for every one of the reasons I’ve listed below, and a small handful of farmers (especially the smaller one like us), don’t mark their sheep at all.  Also, there are probably more reasons for marking sheep that I haven’t even thought of.

mums & lambs with number markings

The first mark occurs when the sheep is a wee lamb.  This is a number to match the lamb or lambs with their mother.  For example the first ewe to give birth on a particular year would be sprayed with a number “1” and so would her lambs.  The second ewe to give birth would be sprayed with a number “2” as would her lambs, and so on.  This is important because if the lambs wander off or get into pickles we can quickly step in and reunite them with the correct mother.

“toddler” aged lambs with vaccination spray marks

The second mark happens when the sheep are a little older (toddler age), they receive a routine vaccination against pneumonia and soil-born diseases.  The sheep are contained in a pen and as each is given their jab they’ll be marked with a small coloured splodge so that they can be identified from sheep which have yet to be treated.  The same thing would happen for any routine treatment, for example, if they need wormer or fluke medicine.

The third mark happens to just the ewes, when they are a little older and ready for romance.  We rub the ram’s chest with paint so that we know when they have served a ewe and we can make a note of the date and plan for the lambs.  This saves sleepless nights wondering when the lambs will make an appearance.  These marks can be quite random, they’re usually on the backside but can be anywhere on the fleece depending on how inexperienced or excited the ram is at tupping time.  The main photo on this page shows a group of ladies, some of which have tell tale tupping marks on their rumps.

The fourth mark happens when the pregnant ewes are scanned to see how many lambs they’re carrying.  This is important because if a ewe is carrying triplets for example, she would need to be given more nutritional supplements than a ewe carrying a single.  If the pregnant ewes can be identified according to the number of lambs they’re carrying they can be separated off in the run up to lambing to be given the correct amount of feed.  Too much or too little supplement in the last few weeks prior to lambing can cause health problems for mother and lambs.

Sheep can also be marked so that they can be linked to a particular farm.  In the north of England these marks are called “smit and lug marks”.  This is important in areas where sheep graze freely such as the Lake District, home to the iconic “Herdy sheep”, and also home to my favourite shop “The Herdy Shop” in Keswick.   The sheep you see wandering the fells belong to many different farms so they would need to be marked so they can be linked back to their farm of origin.  For more information about “smit and lug marks” the Herdy Shop provide a great explanation:   https://www.herdy.co.uk/the-farming-year/coloured-markings-on-sheep/

So, as you can see, each mark tells a story about the sheep, which flock it comes from and what its been getting up to during the year.  And if you ever spot a ewe in the autumn months with paint all over her, you can bet your woolly socks there’s an enthusiastic ram somewhere close by!