Over the last number of years we have embarked on many a project to help build (to use the word favoured by Rob Hopkins and his Transition movement) resilience. And while some of these experiments have had dubious results, our foray into milking sheep has been a resounding success. In autumn 2009 we introduced Tess and Frieda, two crossbred Friesiand ewes to the island. They lambed at Easter and we began milking Tess immediately as her lamb died shortly after birth. While both Christophe and I had some previous experience milking (cows and goats for me, goats and a mare for Christophe) it took a bit of practice and concentration to accustom our hands and fingers to sheep udders and teats. But we soon got the hang of it and found ourselves self-sufficient in milk. For a period of seven months (including our very busy summer period) Tess and Frieda gave us two litres of milk each per day. From this we made the most delicious, creamy yoghurt as well as soft cheese and our first attempts at hard cheese. We used the milk raw for breakfast, for cooking and baking, eliminating our usual order of large quantities of organic milk and yoghurt from the mainland.
Most people are truly surprised by how nice sheep milk tastes. In a blind test we conducted with a few of our island neighbours, most were not able to tell it from cow milk. Nutritionally, it has more protein, calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorous, zinc and is richer in vitamins A, B and E than either goat or cow milk. It contains a higher portion of short and medium chain fatty acids, which have recognized health benefits. For example, short-chain fatty acids have little effect on cholesterol in humans and make milk easier to digest. It has a slightly higher fat content which makes it so creamy and rich and ideal for cheese-making. It is not an alternative for people with severe lactose intolerance due to the fact that sheep milk contains even more lactose than cow milk but is digestible for those who are allergic to cow milk or who have asthma.
Of course, sheep milk is commonly used in other parts of Europe to make such well-known cheeses as Feta from Greece, Roquefort from France, Manchego from Spain, the Pecorino Romano (the Italian word for sheep is pecore) and Ricotta from Italy.
For the large scale commercial enterprise, rearing sheep for their milk must be a precarious undertaking given the small milk yield and relatively short period of lactation. But for the small holder, milking sheep makes a lot of sense. We chose to get Friesiand crossed with Texel to start off with as they are hardier and more resilient, though we have subsequently bought two more cross bred Friesiand ewe lambs to add to our flock, and they have proved satisfactory. They need some sort of structure to provide good shelter from the wind and rain and which can double as a milk parlour as well —-Christophe made a very simple milking stand out of plywood and scrap timber, relatively good grazing (an acre for two animals is plenty) and supplementary feeding: we give our ewes organic sheep nuts year round as well as hay in the winter. The sheep have to be sheared in summer (they give high quality fleeces) and wormed (we use Verm-X herbal wormer, and rotate the grazing pasture to minimise worm burden). And they need to get in lamb each year, so you need to have access to a ram. All this know-how should be relatively easy to obtain from any local farmer. In addition to all the milk they will provide, they will keep your lawn mown (though you may need to protect your bedding plants) and their dung is excellent for your compost heap.
During my early years on the island, I learned how to gather, shear, dose, deliver difficult lambs and even assist during open-air brain surgery to remove staggers, But there was never any thought of milking the mountainy sheep who barely had enough milk to feed their own lambs let alone supply any human appetites. Times have changed! But perhaps the most pleasant surprise has been the friendship that has developed between Tess and Frieda and the rest of our family.
Ciara is happy to give advice to anyone wishing to pursue the idea of having milking sheep. Contact ciara(at)macallafarm.ie
Written by Ciara Cullen
First published in Organic Matters, Ireland Organic magazine