A few years ago somebody once asked me about the coloured markings on sheep’s fleeces.
Having kept sheep for a number of years and living in sheep country, seeing sheep dotted around the hills with blue, green, orange, yellow or red spots is not an unusual sight. In fact, it would be more unusual to see a sheep with a spot-free fleece. With this in mind, I admit, I don’t really notice these coloured splodges anymore.
There are lots of reasons we mark sheep and so I thought I’d try and summarise them here. I might have missed some out but here are the more common reasons:
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.
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!
Although coloured splodges are very useful, if you’re into wool crafts and you have a fleece which has a big coloured splodge on it, it really can spoil a look of your finished product. I’ve done a fair bit of research into stain removal and I’m pretty sure there isn’t a product out there that can remove these marks. Which leaves only two options; remove the coloured wool, or leave it in and let the stain tell a story. “When you look at a field of dandelions, you can either see a hundred weeds or a thousand wishes”.