Slightly abridged from the original publication in the Black and Coloured Sheep Breeders’ Association of New Zealand Magazine no.106 (March 2003).
It’s a whole new language, this sheep stuff, as Fred and I found out soon after we bought our first ewes and a ram. So far so good – we understood that difference – but what about their lambs?
Lambs are born in the usual two sexes – ram lambs and ewe lambs. After that it can get complicated. We learned that there are actually four sexes of lambs! Those unfortunate (former) ram lambs that we apply an extra rubber ring to are henceforth called wethers.
Then there are cryptorchids. That intimidating word means “hidden testicles” and it’s what you get if the rubber ring doesn’t quite catch what it’s supposed to. Cryptorchids are (mostly) infertile, and grow better than wethers so the procedure is sometimes done on purpose to lambs destined for the works. Inexperienced people may do it by accident, and wonder why their so-called ‘wethers’ behave like rams.
Everyone knows lambs are small and cute, but lambs become large and stroppy while still called lambs (and probably other things as well, that can’t be printed here). Officially they are lambs until their two front baby teeth fall out and are replaced by two grown-up teeth. How do you tell the difference? Believe me, you’ll know if it chomps on the finger you’ve put in the front of its mouth!
When those two big teeth erupt at a little over a year old, the sheep becomes a two-tooth (abbreviated to 2-th or 2th). Note that if you have several of them, they will be two-tooths, not two-teeth! A year later it gets two more big teeth and becomes a four-tooth (4th), and in another year it’s a six-tooth (6th).
After that its mouth, or at least its lower jaw (you’ll have discovered by now that there are no front teeth in the upper jaw) is full of teeth, so it becomes, logically, “full mouth”. After a while the poor old thing starts losing or breaking teeth. At that stage you can call it “broken mouth” and consider culling it. This means that a 2th is about two years old (but could be younger), a 4th about three years old, and so on.
That’s fine, but then there are hoggets. Hoggets are what the meatworks call lambs as an excuse to pay less for them, if you happen to send them off a bit late. Apparently the two big teeth have come up in the truck on the way to the works. Somehow this changes the whole quality of the meat, though how the leg of lamb knows that the head of the lamb has just got two new teeth is a mystery to me.
Actually hoggets are much the same as 2ths. However, it’s convenient to call last year’s lambs “the hoggets” as soon as this year’s lambs are born. Of course we may use other technical terms, like “you stupid sods” or simply “@#$%s!”
Just when we were getting the hang of all this, we attended our first sale, and were confronted with a new set of words. The “upset price” seems to be the price below which they’d be too upset to let you bid on anything. Of course a seller may set a reserve higher than this. There were 2th rams and ewes, and one MA (mixed age) ram. No, his age wasn’t mixed or confused – he was a 4th – but if there had been several of them they might have been a mixture of any ages older than 2th.
Finally a trip to the UK made us realise how lucky we are. We never did sort out all their “hoggs”, “tups”, “tegs”, “gimmers” and “shearlings”. Suddenly the New Zealand system seemed relatively simple.