As we prepare for breeding season at the end of this month, I’ve looked at a few of my ewes and wondered if they are still young enough to breed successfully. That also got me wondering exactly how long I can expect my sheep to live.
My oldest ewe is 6 years old. According to research that I found on how long sheep live, the average life span is about 10 to 12 years. (Side note: some breeds are known to live longer, like the Merino sheep. The oldest recorded sheep was 23 years and and, yes, she was a Merino!).
So, for a North Country Cheviot ewe, my girl still has plenty of life left in her. That is, she should have some years left with good nutrition, good health and perhaps a dose of good luck.
Now, as far as breeding, the Sheep 101 website says that most ewes are at their most productive between 3 and 6 years old. After they reach 7 years, their reproductive abilities begin to decline. But, given great care and good nutrition, some ewes can birth lambs up to 10 years old!
On a larger farm, ewes of an older age might be culled at about 6 years or earlier to make way for younger, healthier breeding stock. However, on our little farm, the ewes will be used for breeding as long as they are able—and healthy!
Teeth Are the Key to Health
I had only a vague idea of how important a sheep’s teeth are to telling its age and, moreover, predicting its eventual health (or lack of it).
First of all, lambs are born with no teeth but will grow eight “milk teeth” by the time they are a few months old. What really surprised me was that, like humans and other mammals, lambs lose their baby teeth!
By the time they are about a year, the sheep will grow in two permanent incisors. A second pair of baby teeth are replaced at about two years. By the age of 4, an adult sheep will have a full set of adult teeth that includes incisors and molars in the back of the mouth.
But as you can imagine, a grazing sheep uses its mouth to pull and crunch on everything that goes in her mouth. As sheep age, their teeth eventually wear down, break off or even fall out. You need to keep an eye on your older sheep to watch out for weight loss …especially if dental issues are the reason.
At that point, it’s really best to talk to your vet to see what they recommend for feeding a ewe with dental issues.
I can tell you that checking your sheep’s teeth is not the easiest thing to do. But I have started to do that while worming, shearing or other such tasks. When they are caught up is the perfect time to look at many aspects of their health.
Well, now that I know my oldest ewe is capable (I hope) of bearing more lambs, I’ll keep an extra special eye on her health and her teeth to ensure she is getting the nutrition she needs.