Lambing time again.
Everyone loves lambs. Their bouncy, lively nature encapsulates everything we look forward to about spring.
It’s about new life and fresh starts and the start of the warmer months. (Supposedly!)
We started in earnest this week, the first day of lambing was technically Friday the first of April, but by then there were already 40 or so lambs bouncing around. No one told them to wait a few days longer, but luckily we were ready for them.
Preparation for lambing takes months. Shortly after weaning back in late August, our head stockman started making plans for the following season’s lambing. The field use throughout the year is planned well in advance so that we can keep the livestock on rotation through clean pasture.
This rotation stops the build-up of parasites and optimises the best of the grass growth for critical times in the breeding calendar for both sheep and cattle.
The sheep over-winter outside in fields that were previously arable or are just too far away from the lambing sheds to be helpful come the start of the lambing season. The flocks, once organised into their lambing groups (triplets/singles/twins and pedigrees) start making the slow journey back across the farm, a month before the start of April, field by field, until they reach their lambing destination.
The maternity ward
High risk groups of sheep stay in the sheds so that they are under constant supervision. This year we had 48 sets of triplets due, which we knew from ultrasound scanning in January. Sheep sadly are not very good at rearing three lambs, despite their ability to produce them! They only have two teats and three lambs struggle to thrive, with the risk of losing one or more very high.
So once a triplet has lambed, and all three lambs have had a tummy full of her colostrum, which is the first milk- and is the single most important thing to give a newborn lamb- we remove the strongest.
This seems a bit mean and a little counter intuitive, but the smaller two will do really well on their mum, and the now orphaned lamb is given to a ewe with only one of her own.
Lambs are programmed to drink from a ewe, regardless of who she is, as long as you foster them early enough. For this reason we keep pens full of singles too, to act as a donor reservoir of surrogate mums, and because we select the strongest lamb from a triplet, it has the energy and nounce to follow new mum around.
Fostering prevents us having lots of bottle fed orphans left at the end of lambing. These orphans, or Cades as they are known, never do as well as lambs reared on a ewe, and the novelty of bottle feeding twenty lambs 6 times a day very quickly wears thin!
Helping nurture instincts
The other sheep in the shed are first time mums. Although nature is an amazing thing and instinct takes over, sheep are also flighty creatures and will bolt if spooked. This is fine in a normal flock situation, but if that happens to be 5 minutes after birth that spells disaster for the lamb.
We keep them in, and pen them on their own once they start lambing. This establishes a strong bond between ewe and lamb, and after a couple of days they are placed in large communal pens. After 24 hours and if we are convinced that they are properly ‘mothered up’ they go out into the big wide world.
It’s a lot of extra work- but it’s worth it for a successful outcome.
The 700 or so left lambing out in the fields next to the sheds are the twins. Usually they lamb unaided, and because they are old hands, they quickly clean up their lambs, drying them off before they catch a chill and fiercely guard them until they are strong enough to stand up and follow her.
Once the lambs are dry, we catch them, ring their tails and testicles, number them to match the ewe’s number and insert ear tags, before moving into a holding pen to recover from being handled. After an hour or two the family is ready to be moved into their new field, so the gate is opened and mum and babes trot off onto clean, lush pasture.
Grass is best
The lush pasture is vital to a lactating ewe, helping her create plenty of milk to feed her new lambs. In turn they grow rapidly, gaining in strength until they are confident enough to form lamb gangs with their cousins and charge around, performing the characteristic springing and leaping that we’ve all seen and cooed at.
Our Herdwicks and Shetland lamb further away from the sheds in quieter fields. These sheep are the most amazing mothers. Very hardy, with small but incredibly tough and active lambs, that seem to be on their feet after birth in half the time of a commercial sheep.
They are the quickest and wiliest of all our sheep, and for this reason they are born survivors, able to cope in all weathers.
A mother's love
Most sheep are fiercely maternal- protecting their lambs from foxes, opportunistic badgers and stray dogs- some will even attack the stockman as he approaches, and this is a very desirable trait. The best mums rear the best lambs, and we choose our breeds carefully so we can exploit this natural instinct.
In five weeks’ time, all 1100 ewes will have lambed and our fields will be bursting with new life. Our stockmen will be shuffling around looking exhausted, but it’s all worth it.
The fun doesn’t stop there though, four to five checks a day to make sure all is well will be the norm until the lambs are at least a month old, and in the meantime there is silage to make, fencing to do, paddocks to mow and other livestock to care for….
Farming isn’t a job, it’s a way of life. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.