Adam Henson: learning farming speak for sheep and pigs
The world of farming is a diverse and varied way of life with a rich vocabulary to match. It’s really no surprise that many of the terms and phrases we use every day can leave non-farming folk mystified. So let’s unravel some...
As there are around 23 million sheep in the UK, why not start with the woolly wonders? Just about everyone is familiar with the terms ram, ewe and lamb; the basic names for the male, female and young of the species. But beyond that there is a whole set of descriptive names to discover for different types of sheep.
Rams that are used for mating are also known as tups (and the verb tupping is used to describe their most important job of the mating season). It’s not known exactly from where the term originates but it was almost certainly from the north of England in the Middle Ages. Another word that sounds medieval is sire, used for a ram that has successfully fathered lambs.
TEASE FOR TWO
You’d think that the least useful thing for a sheep breeder would be a vasectomised ram. But he has a specific job and an expressive name. Called a teaser, his hormonal presence among the ewes encourages them to come into season and when the rams go to them, they get pregnant quickly, creating a tight lambing pattern.
EWES, GIMMERS AND DAMS
Terms for ewes are equally expressive. A gimmer is a breeding female, a dam is a mother ewe and if a shepherd refers to ewes as ‘yows’, they’ll almost certainly come from the northern counties or Scotland.
LANGUAGE OF LAMBS
A fat lamb means one heavy enough to go to the abattoir. A wether is a castrated lamb. Yearling and shearling both describe a young sheep between its first and second shearing. A hogg (or hogget) is a lamb over a year old that’s ready for the table and a mule is a cross-breed, normally between a longwool (long-haired breed) and a hill breed.
So now you’ve mastered the lexicon of shepherding, let’s tackle pig-keeping. Boars, sows and piglets are straightforward. A hog (this time with just one ‘g’) means a castrated boar that’s raised for meat. Males castrated when young are barrows and when older they’re called stags. A gilt is a young female before she’s had her first litter but around the UK there are a host of local versions of this word, including gelt, elt, hilt and yilt.
The smallest piglet in the litter is traditionally called a runt. It’s a powerful moniker, and still used as an insult, but in his book Higgledy Piggledy, breeder Richard Lutwyche offers a catalogue of wonderful alternatives including darling, nistledriff, reckling, squeaker, waster and wossett. A weaner is a piglet taken away from its mother’s milk to be fed on solid food. No prizes for guessing what happens to porkers and baconers. The difference often comes down to age and weight with porkers usually ready from four months and bacon animals between eight and 10 months old.
So now you’ve got the lingo, you’re ready to make friends with any shepherd or pig farmer.