Lambing had its usual challenges

Writers Posted 24/05/21
Lambs put up with cold weather well, providing they get going quickly, and get their fill of colostrum.

Yay. “it’s raining”. I’m tempted to join our grandsons, who are jumping in the puddles with sheer delight at the water splashing everywhere. The prospect of better grass growth comes as a huge relief. The cattle feed situation has been worrying, with stores depleted and little grass to turn cattle on to. The sheep have mopped up what has been available, but thankfully we’ve a seed ley which has grown really well. To utilise this, we’ve been strip grazing it, which has kept them going. Moving fences daily is an extra chore but it gives a good opportunity to spot any trouble within the flock at an early stage. It also provides the added bonus of seeing lambs running races, helping the ‘feel good’ factor in shepherding.

Lambing had its usual challenges, but thanks to input from family members on ‘lambing holiday’ we all came through it. Lambs put up with cold weather well, providing they get going quickly, and get their fill of colostrum. Cold and wet is the killer, so from that aspect lack of rain was a positive. Contrary to their reputation, sheep can be sensible and find sheltered locations to lamb in, while others choose the brow of the hill; maybe they like the view. We lambed outside, checking them from dawn to dusk. We only pen them if there’s a problem or if they’ve lambed late in the evening.

I particularly enjoy the first check. I’ve tried to teach my ewes the nursing concept of ‘airway, breathing, circulation’ with limited success. Nothing is more frustrating than to find a large dead lamb with its body lovingly licked clean but with the airway covered by the amniotic sac. On this occasion, to her credit the mother had managed to get it right with the two very small siblings who were up and sucking. I penned her, due to their size and vulnerability. Next day I was alarmed to find one lamb looking rather bloated. On inspection it was lacking a vital exit passage. Sad times, but luckily these are far outweighed by the successes.

Good mothering skills make the difference between life and death. One ewe (marked down on my phone) lavished all her love and attention on her first born. She dropped her second and simply ignored it. It lay wet, exposed to an icy wind, and soon became hypothermic. I treated it and tucked it up in a box, not expecting it to survive the night. But next morning it was up and sucking. Annoyingly we were unable to persuade its mother to look after it even after a stint in the fostering unit. It’s now joined the merry throng of sock lambs.

At first I was wary about the fox that frequented the lambing field, but it did a great job of clearing up the afterbirth. I only wish it would do the same regarding the abundance of rabbits emerging from the wood into our field. To give the fox its due, it never once touched a lamb, and towards the end of lambing cautiously went about scavenging while I worked.

Usually I’d be in Shrek (ATV), but early one frosty morning this was out of action. Option two, our pickup truck was on ‘collecting milk duties’ for the cheese makers. Option three, walk. Option four, use my ageing convertible car to carry vital lambing equipment and do my 5.30am surveillance. The fox did take a second look at this unusual mode of transport but seemed to accept it was only me. At this stage of lambing I was so tired that I was past caring what anyone thought.

Before the family disbanded we had a lambing debrief session around the kitchen table. We discussed what needed improvement, ie applying iodine to newborns’ navels sooner rather than later, as a few lambs have joint ill. It was also suggested there should be ‘more cake’ for the workers. And what we did well – besides showing our appreciation by demolishing cake in seconds? Teamwork, dividing the work to our strengths.

Youngest daughter did have a burst of house proudness and complained about dust and straw finding its way into the kitchen. We calmed her down by complimenting her cooking skills, and by promising not to tiptoe into the kitchen in our wellies when she wasn’t looking. We celebrated our good teamwork by opening a bottle of fizz and then tumbled back out into the lambing field in remarkably good spirits.

I recommend the ‘super crook’ (available from KiwiKit) to all shepherds. It has been invaluable during lambing, saving a lot of chasing about. Using it has relegated heroic rugby tackling of ewes to a thing of the past. Simply bleat or put down a little food and you can get close enough to hook onto a leg – and you’ve got them. It enables you to sort out a problem alone, lamb them down and release them, avoiding a lot of stress for all concerned.

Will shepherds need to hang up their crooks in favour of forestry tools? The chairman of the Forestry Commission apparently intends to persuade shepherds to become foresters. In order to meet net zero carbon emissions, the plan apparently is to plant 75,000 acres of woodland a year in the UK. A fifth of agricultural land shifting from food production to woodland, energy crops and peatland restoration.

My hedgerow tree planting skills might yet come in handy. Our new hedges are growing well and Adam Winter’s smart fencing work reliably keeps stock where they are put. When livestock behave, I’m really rather fond of them; besides, lamb and beef makes delicious food. The growing population still needs to eat, and given the choice I’d prefer steak over leaves any day. So I’ve currently got no plan to change my career, but I’m wondering if tree house construction might be a good sideline.

We’re feasting on rhubarb from the garden, and the peas now have pods. Planting potatoes helped by a one and two year-old proved more challenging than I’d envisaged. The swallows are back. The chickens are certainly enjoying freedom after their lockdown – I hope our release goes as smoothly.


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