31 JULY 1936, Page 11



THE flocks that seem to us as permanent as the everlasting hills on which they graze are passing away. The black-faced sheep of the Highlands, the white-faced sheep of the Cheviots, the little Herdwicks of the Lake Country (the most intelligent of the breeds of sheep), and the Welsh Mountain sheep of the incom- parable mutton are all passing away, unless—but we come to that later.

In five of the Highland counties the hill sheep in fifty years have decreased by nearly one-fourth. Why ? There are several reasons, such as the spread of bracken, the ravages of the heather beetle, the extension of deer forests, and, more recently, the activities of the Forestry Com- mission. All these are worth examination, but one universal cause independent of all the rest is the gradual inevitable diminution of the mineral . contents of the grasses. This sounds complex, but it is simple. The bony skeleton of the sheep is largely composed of calcium or lime, and phosphorus. The only source of these minerals is the grass, the grass can obtain them only from the soil, and the soil only from the gradual dissolution of the rocks. If the sheep carry away the lime and phosphorus faster than the soil can provide them and the rocks produce them, then the grass must contain less and less of lime and phos- phorus.

That is what the sheep are doing and that is what is happening to the grass. Every year hundreds of thousands of lambs and draft ewes come off the hills never to return, and they carry away with them hundreds of tons of these essential minerals. 'Whereas the loss of minerals on the low country farm can be made good by the application of farmyard manure and artificial fer- tilisers, there is no such possibility on the hill land. Every year, therefore, the hill sheep cat from a frac- tionally more meagre platter and the cumulative effects are becoming apparent now. Why only now ? Because hill sheep-farming is a modern use of the hills, only two or three centuries old, and when the grass grew and died in the time of Queen Elizabeth it returned its mineral contents to the soil. Now, the water in the reservoir, so to speak, is lower every year. If the platter is less well filled, fewer sheep can cat at it, so the first effect, as we have seen, is a reduction in the sheep stocks.

The second effect is a lowering of the vitality of the remaining sheep. No matter how diligently they graze -and a sheep can only graze for seven or eight hours in winter and for fifteen or sixteen hours in summer—they cannot, on the more depleted pastures, take in, in one winter day, enough for that day's needs, for heat and energy and growth. In short they suffer from mid- nutrition or under-nourishment,. resistance to disease is lowered and they become susceptible to a number of ills. A simple experiment points the lesson. Two lots of lambs of the same age and breed were all healthy and normal at birth. One lot was well nourished and the other was deliber- ately underfed, until both lots were put on a pasture which was infested with the stomach worm of the sheep. At the end of six weeks both lots were slaughtered. The well nourished lambs had an average of 31 worms per stomach, while the ill fed had 103. The strong constitutions resisted the worms, the weak succumbed.

The diseases of hill sheep, which are known by many names, are probably due in the main to semi-starvation in the winter. On one hill farm in Argyllshire the in-lamb ewes were found to be 25 to 30 per cent. lighter in the spring than in the previous autumn. The lambs from such ewes are weak at birth, get little milk from their starved mothers, and so die quickly in a flurry of snow or in a two days' gale of wind and rain. Yet the grass seems to grow as green and long and thick as ever in the summer. But it is the contents that matter, and the minerals in the grasses dwindle so imperceptibly from year to year that half a century must pass before their significance is noted. If these minerals cannot be replaced the hill sheep must disappear.

There is one way in which minerals may be returned to the land. It happens that a sheep must take in more lime and phosphorus in its food than it can use to build up bone and flesh. If, for example, it needs half an ounce, it must cat an ounce. The other half ounce is deposited in its droppings. Therefore, if lime and phosphate can be fed, half of what is fed goes back to the soil to nourish the coming grasses. Thus we kill two birds with one stone, we feed the sheep and we replenish the soil. It is easy to feed minerals of almost any kind in a " lick " or block which the sheep will lick to satisfy its mineral hunger. Or minerals can be fed as small pieces of cake made palatable by mixing with molasses or some such substance. The provision of licks in South Africa, Argentina and Australia is ordinary routine on some farms, and in South Africa, where phosphorus is deficient in the soil and no licks arc given, the cattle eat the bones of the dead to save their own lives.

In New Zealand, in some parts, the pastures which seem luxuriant can only be used when iron, which is the deficient mineral, is fed to the animals grazing upon them. In Kenya there arc great grass plains, a seeming pastoral paradise, but owing to scme as yet undiscovered deficiency in the grass, no sheep or cattle nor any of the wild grass-eating animals can live upon them. • There is no difficulty in providing the minerals we need in this country. The question is, will it pay ? In our hill country this has yet to be discovered, but there is hope. On the credit side are bigger and healthier sheep with more wool, stronger lambs, with a lower death rate of both ewes and lambs, and a slow but steady improvement in the nutritive value of the grasses. On the debit side are the cost of the licks and the cost of the labour in distributing them. The acid test is the price of the lambs and draft ewes at the autumn sales. If the increase in price is greater than the cost of the licks, then the hill sheep will not pass away. But if ends cannot be made to meet, then some time, though not in our time, there will be no lambs bleating under Crinkle Crags or on the slopes of Coniston, the Highland glens will be lonelier than ever, and the great green sweeps of the Cheviots will seem as lifeless as the sea,