Sheep Keeping, Castrating and Tail Docking
Before they are a week old lambs often have their tails docked, if they are a male they often have their testicles removed. Learn how this is done, why, and the authors opinions.
Castrating a Lamb
Although I am a poor speller, the word Wether is spelled correctly and refers to a castrated sheep.
When and Why?
Male lambs, also called ram lambs, are often castrated between 3 and 7 days of age. After that they are referred to as Wethers.
There are several reasons why a sheep producer might castrate his, or her, lambs, although I will point out that my wife and I do not do this to our sheep.
By castrating a male sheep the meat does not have as strong of a taste as when the animal is left intact. This is an advantage, or disadvantage, depending on whom a meat buyer is. While many people are accustomed to lamb meat from castrated animals (steers, wethers) some ethnic buyers, such as Muslims, prefer a lamb that is intact.
Castrating a sheep may make it gentler although I have not had any aggressive rams in my flock. Still it is worth noting that for pets, or for petting zoos, a wethered animal may be preferred. They are often cheaper to purchase than ewes and a number of wethers can be kept together or with ewes without concerns of them fighting each other or chasing the ewes.
How Lambs are Castrated
The act of castrating a lamb can be done several ways, from surgical removal (considered to be the most painful as this is done when the lamb is fully conscious) to the Emasculator which crushes the spermatic cord and blood vessels (no thanks) to the Elastrator, which in my opinion seems like the option I would take if I were going to do this to my own lambs. The Elastrator is also used to remove the tails (docking) and is a tool which places a special elastic band on the testicles, and they fall off a few weeks later.
Tail Docking is a process done to some young wool sheep lambs. Again, I do not do this to my lambs, even the wool lambs. This is done usually at 2-5 days of age. To say it is not painful is a lie, although perhaps it is less painful when done at this age than when they are older (which would require a veterinarian).
How Tail Docking is done on Lambs
Tail docking also uses the same tools as can be used to wether a sheep. Again if I were going to do this I would use the Elastrator. The tail is pulled through the opened elastic band which is released and tightens on the tail cutting off the blood supply, and the tail falls off in a week or two. Other tools can be used which cut the tail off and heat the blood vessels, or squish them, thus stopping the blood flow.
The Reasons for Tail Docking
Wool sheep tend to accumulate feces on their tails. This can be a problem in that it attracts flies. If enough flies accumulate they can cause a problem known as Fly Strike. Although it sounds implausible, flies lay their eggs around the sheep's anus and the maggots start eating the insides of the sheep. Fly Strike is actually a fairly common problem in pet rabbits who are kept in filthy conditions. I have never seen it in my sheep, even those with long tails, In areas where fly populations are heavy, and more animals are kept, it can be a real concern. Keeping a few free range hens certainly puts a damper on the number of flies around my acreage.
Messy tails can mean dirty udders a concern for nursing lambs, but to be realistic about the whole thing, sheep eat from the same pastures they poop in.. so...
Most sheep feces are round balls, and fall freely away from the rump unless the animal has diarrhea in which case a good amount would stick to the tail. Such diarrhea is more common in the spring when the grass is lush and new.
Messy tails get in the way of shearing. This is probably the biggest reason why tails are docked. Fleeces with poop get less money than those that are clean, and removing the crusty mess from a tail can be difficult.
Concerns with Tail Docking
Some people see tail docking as cruel, and inhumane. If it is done wrong, and the tail cut too short, it can cause problems for the sheep.
Some buyers prefer lambs with natural tails.
Other Information and Links
One caution regardless of the method used, is infection and tetanus, so castrating should only be done on animals once they are vaccinated for tetanus and housed in clean, dry, facilities.
My sheep, except for 2 ewes whose tails were docked before we got them, all have naturally long tails. It is worth noting that some breeds have shorter tails than others, and hair sheep breeds (my favorite) do not get fluffy tails anyhow so mess accumulating on their tails (and shearing) is never a concern.
Our Sheep Blog
Advantages of Hair Sheep
How to Care for Bottle Baby Lambs
Mulesing is a cruel practice done to most Merino sheep in Australia in addition to tail docking when animals are going to be kept for breeding.
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