The cold blast in December took its toll on both breeding ewes and fattening hoggets that were still outdoors. According to owners, the outdoor sheep quickly lost condition, especially those that were carrying fluke.
Sheep will dig into snow for grass and fodder but the depth of snow and the severity of last month's freeze made supplementary feeding vital, provided you were able to reach the sheep with the feeding. In Wicklow, the challenge for the hill sheep farmers was to find all their sheep after the first heavy snow.
For those who planned to out-winter sheep on catch crops, the fodder rape took a battering but has kept the leaves better than kale. The swede turnips have survived best of all. No wonder the Scots, who are used to cold winters, remain loyal to the swede turnip.
With the housed sheep in December, water was an issue for a few days. I would have thought that winter shearing of the ewes might have been cancelled during the freeze up, but not so, according to George Graham in Wexford.
The All-Ireland shearing expert continued to shear ewes during the minus temperatures but he was selective in the flocks he worked with. He only shore ewes that were in strong condition and were bedded on deep, dry straw. He said that the shorn ewes quickly adjusted.
The greatest losses I ever saw post-shearing occurred in hill sheep that were shorn in one very wet June. The shorn ewes, still rearing their lambs, were immediately hit with two days of continuous cold rain. About 100 of a 400-ewe flock died. Most of the rest fell away in milk yield. So ewe condition and post-shearing shelter against the elements are important factors in the timing of shearing.
Is it too late to shear housed ewes at this stage?
I reckon that if the ewes are strong, the housing is warm and there are eight weeks for the wool to re-grow before turnout, winter shearing will still be beneficial.
My own sheep are still getting daily strips of grass using an electric fence on the lines that Dr Sean Flanagan promoted at Tegasc Knockbeg. The ewes are allocated about 10m2/hd/day, which, according to the grass height, should give about 1kg of grass dry matter/hd/day. That's the theory and I hope it works. The sheep are quite content and I was amazed to see the grass, which was grazed around Christmas, already putting up green shoots in spite of the cold conditions.
At Knockbeg, the ground that was paddock grazed right through to January delivered more grass recovery by February than the ground that was set stocked into December.
If you want early grass, set stocking in the back end is not recommended. New Zealand sheep farmers will often set stock for the summer but, to promote winter and early spring growth, they always switch to rotational grazing for the winter.
Since the start of this year, our factories seem hell bent on putting a lid on the sheep meat price.
Meanwhile, a cousin in New Zealand tells me that she got an extra NZ$18 (€10) a head for the first of her early lambs this season. The first draft of lambs, at about 20kg carcass weight, averaged NZ$113 (€67) a head -- and these lambs were produced on grass only. They received no meal feeding.
In other news, Mr Graham informs me that this year's All-Ireland Sheep Shearing Championships have been scheduled for the Cillin Hill mart complex in Kilkenny.
As usual, the event is to take place over the June bank holiday weekend.
John Shirley runs his flock at Fighting Cocks, Co Carlow