Q. How many acres per sheep is needed to keep them healthy without much supplemental food (if that's possible)?
We hear this questions a lot. Unfortunately, it's an impossible question to answer, as pastures vary so very much by locale, climate, pasture maintenance, type of planting, and rainfall! A basic rule of thumb is that a pasture that will support one large grazing animal, such as a cow, should support 6 or 7 commercial sheep; maybe a few more of a smaller breed such as Barbados or Jacobs. But again, the size of that pasture will vary widely!
Q. I'm worried about poisonous weeds in our pasture. What should I do? A. This is something that a lot of new shepherds fixate on. We did, too, at one time. But you can probably stop worrying unless your pasture is way too small or sparse! We've found that, at least here in the Eastern US, our sheep avoid most toxic plants if there's anything else available. Talk to your local ag extension agent if you're concerned about specific local plants, as it's possible there is some sort of weird palatable toxic plant unique to your area. Many non-native ornamentals are reputedly toxic, so don't let your livestock nibble on those pretty shrubs you've planted around your foundation. The random pruning isn't going to improve your landscaping anyway. And, of course, don't feed shrubbery prunings to your animals.
Either we or friends have had sheep eat milkweed, sorghum, kale, and even rhododendron without any apparent damage; but not a lot of it, and not for any length of time. We have a number of supposedly toxic plants in our field, including bracken fern, mayapple, and wild cherry. Nothing has ever eaten them. That's not to say that nothing ever will, of course. Be forewarned that one thing that IS very toxic is weedkilling chemicals, and sheep DO often like the taste of these products. Please don't trade an imagined problem for a very real one!
Q. We have planted some fruit trees in the pasture and wouldn't like for the sheep to eat them, but they are enclosed in 5' high wire mesh fence. Is that enough? A. Probably. Sheep love fruit trees. They will strip the bark from young trees and kill them, and prune the lower growth off of older trees. But unless your pasture is a barren sandlot, I can't imagine any sheep being motivated to hop over a 5' fence just to pull some leaves off a tree! Young agile sheep will stand on wire fences, though, and moosh them into the ground if there's something on the other side they're trying to reach. Hardware cloth, cyclone fencing, or similar fencing with mesh too small for sheeps' hooves is best. Electric fencing works well, too, but the sheep must be trained to respect it. Q. Barbados sheep were recommended to me because they don't climb like goats and shed out on their own. Is this true? A. Barbados Blackbelly sheep are a little more agile than typical commercial breeds, but you're right; they don't climb like goats. Their wool, which has no value, is shed naturally. They can be combed, if desired, to speed up the process; but this is more of an emotional benefit for some owners than a necessity or desire of the sheep!
Animal behavior has been defined as the interaction of an animal with its environment. During this interaction the animal must make decisions, based on its evaluation of the environment and its needs, of whether or not the environment is adequate or appropriate for specific behaviors. The environment includes both physical and biotic components, so sheep adjust their behavior in response to such diverse characteristics as the thermal conditions of their environment, the flora present, or the characteristics of other sheep. Although an animal's subjective experiences may not lend themselves to direct evaluation, we may be able to address these questions indirectly by using behavior as an indicator of the animal's decisions.