If you want to produce lambs even on a small scale, the ram (or tup depending on your geography) clearly plays a vital role. Despite this, it is estimated that 3.5 - 10% of working tups in the UK are not fit for use. Sourcing a ram should be great fun and the pitfalls can be avoided with a few key steps, writes veterinary surgeon Kaz Strycharczyk.

Selecting your ram: how and where

Ram sales, such as Kelso and Builth Wells, are a fundamental part of the sheep farming calendar and are great events, fulfilling a much broader role than simply the transaction of cash and sheep. However, from a husbandry perspective they can be challenging. Firstly, sales are an effective way of spreading disease between farms. Secondly, there is a great craft in marketing and grooming rams for sale – combined with a heady auction environment, the uninitiated can quickly find themselves out of their depth. Finally, if you are trying to source a minority breed you may find that most are sold privately rather than through sales.

My advice for smallholders is to try to source rams privately through breed societies, word of mouth, or online. If you have doubts as to what to you are looking for, ask someone with some experience to join you – take a similar approach to buying a car.

Get your hands on the ram before buying him. Your criteria should be:

Sound feet: have a look at his feet even if he is not lame – it is not unknown for painkillers to be used to mask lameness in sheep for sale.

Good condition (body condition score 3.5-4.0): ‘fit not fat’ – rams will forego eating while they are mating ewes so need to have decent energy reserves, although very fat rams will be lethargic and have poor sperm quality. Information on scoring body condition can be found on the AHDB Beef and Lamb website.

Genitals: Your vet can do a thorough examination, but you should be able to pick up obvious abnormalities – he should have two evenly sized testicles of decent size, reasonably firm (ripe tomatoes are a good approximation) and free of mange.

Libido and attitude: Arguably the hardest aspect to judge and comes with practice. He should have some swagger and presence. Watch him closely when he is with your ewes.

Breed-specific traits: He should be of a suitable breed for both your farm and your aims if producing meat, milk or wool. If breeding high value pedigree animals, he should be a good example of the breed and not too closely related to your ewes.

Perhaps most importantly, he should have been kept in a system similar to your own situation. It is no good expecting a ram raised on lush lowland pasture to be turned out to hilly scrub and be expected to thrive – he is likely to ‘melt’. If ticks are a problem where you are, source rams from a tick area too as tick borne disease can affect fertility.

A note on sharing rams – this is common among smallholders and small pedigree flocks. It makes economic sense, but each holding should have similar disease status to avoid bringing any new diseases onto your farm. If you go into a ram-share, the ground rules on when he is to be used should be clear from the start – it is no use sharing a ram if both parties want to use him at the same time.

Preparation and testing

As with any animal you buy, your new ram should go into quarantine and get the appropriate treatments - for fluke, gutworms, scab and lameness – plus any vaccinations you give the rest of your flock. Ask your vet about specific products and getting sensible quantities; try co-ordinating treatments with other smallholders to share the cost. Bear in mind that you need to get your ram in good time for quarantine to be worthwhile!

If a poor lamb crop would be a disaster, consider a ram MOT. Many commercial sheep farms use ram teams to mate a group of ewes, so a dud can be masked by the work of his teammates. Most smallholders rely on one ram so do not have this safety net.

A MOT carried out by a vet generally consists of three parts: an overall physical examination, a genital examination and analysis of a semen sample. Again, it is vital to do this in good time: ideally 8 weeks prior to intended use, so that corrections can be made to his fertility or a replacement sourced. Your vet can advise on whether semen analysis would be appropriate for your flock.

Manipulating the breeding season

There are numerous ways of manipulating the breeding cycle to your advantage. For earlier lambs – which are ready for sale earlier in the year while prices are generally better, or bigger in time for pedigree sales – you can bring them into season earlier, or ‘advance’ the breeding season.

For a more compact lambing, you can ‘synchronise’ your ewes. Hormone treatments can bring your ewes into season together for about 48 hours. As a result, they should lamb in a similar timeframe – allowing much easier planning and supervision of lambing ewes, plus a more even batch of lambs which aids husbandry procedures such as vaccination. If you have organic status, check with the certifying body as they may take issue with hormonal intervention.

The traditional means of advancing and synchronising is exposure of ewes to a ‘teaser’, or vasectomised ram. Vasectomisation is a relatively straightforward procedure but requires planning with your vet.

Manipulation of the breeding season in sheep has great potential for smallholders, especially synchronisation. A full discussion is beyond the scope of this article, but your vet should be happy to talk you through the various options.


Kaz Strycharczyk is a veterinary surgeon at Black Sheep Farm Health, based in Rothbury, Northumberland.