Lambing is for many now underway at last; it is that slightly nervous time of year when sheep producers wait, apprehensively, for the first few lambs to hit the ground. It is a time that brings a conclusion to all of the hard work and planning that has been invested in flocks since weaning last summer; the sorting out of the flock, ensuring that they are in the correct condition for tupping, selecting the best rams and ensuring their condition, making sure that nutrition suits the requirements of the ewes at any point in time during tupping and pregnancy, in particular the critical final trimester as lambing approaches… The list is endless. It is this list that represents a lot of commitment to flocks, with lambing presenting the final opportunity to see the results of those efforts.
If everything has been planned and implemented correctly, the hope is that the results show plenty, but not too many, lambs (too many triplets can present all sorts of problems), lambs that are a good birth weight, but not so big as to generate too many lambing problems, and ewes with plenty of good quality colostrum and milk, the latter two being things you cannot have too much of. The six or seven months between weaning and lambing are always a bit of a balancing act; a combination of wanting to get everything correct but not wanting to overdo it, and it is only when we have the evidence there on the ground that there is any degree of certainty that the correct balance has been achieved.
My ewes certainly played a waiting game this season, seemingly reluctant to part with their precious cargoes; they hung on as long as they could. I knew exactly which date the tups went in and, changing crayons at seven and 17 days, was fairly confident of when individual or groups of ewes were tupped. Scanning results certainly indicated that (at that point in time) there were no empties, a fact reinforced by the ever increasing girth of all of the ewes, particularly those that happen to carry their lambs sideways, like a pair of over-stuffed saddlebags. All the indications were that things were proceeding very much as expected.
Experience has demonstrated that my ewes will normally lamb fairly close to the average 145 to 147-day gestation length, and as a result I was well prepared and full of expectation for some action at 145 days, but nothing. At 146 days, the first ewe lambed, a lovely pair of Suffolk cross ram lambs, a good weight and mum full of milk. Great, thumbs up, here we go. And then nothing for the best part of a week, although I knew there was a group of ewes that had taken the ram in the first few days of tupping.
I’m convinced that, with the combination of returning home for lambing onto some really good grass and a spell of nice warm and sunny days, they were just enjoying (not wishing to be too anthropomorphic) their last opportunity to relax for a bit longer before their new families arrived, with some going to 150 plus days, really quite unusual for my ewes. But that is sheep for you, full of surprises, part of their raison d’etre; any opportunity to either drop dead or catch you out. True to character, they decided, just as the weather changed for the worse, that it would be a really good time to up the pace of lambing; not that it seems to bother them, although, from a personal point of view, it is more pleasant doing the rounds on a nice dry, sometimes sunny, if crisp, morning, midday/evening or night than it is in the wind and rain.
Happily, now that they have decided to get on with it, the encouraging signals and hopes from the first arrivals have been fully justified, with a steady stream (more of a trickle really) of good strong and lively lambs arriving, lambs that are up and suckling in no time, with attentive mums absolutely full of milk. As for the weather, lambing outside it might not bother the ewes and lambs, but I for one really do appreciate the luxury of a small shed with mothering pens. With new arrivals, once they are licked dry and their mums are drifted out and penned up for 24 to 36 hours, being under cover certainly makes all of the routine tasks, navel treatment, weighing, tagging, tailing, etc. nice and easy, with the additional benefit (to me at least) of being carried out in a warm and dry environment.
At lambing time in particular, we do need to look after ourselves, something that maybe we are not very good at. There are many sheep keepers, currently lambing or about to lamb, who operate on their own and who would, if anything untoward should happen to them, be in real trouble, or their lambing ewes would be. I know one case of a shepherd who had a positive Covid-19 test in the middle of lambing. Having tested positive he was ordered, under threat of prosecution, to self isolate even though he had no cover and was only visiting his lambing ewes. Nevertheless he was ordered to stay at home, which unfortunately was not where his flock was lambing. How many others, not necessarily due to Covid-19 but possibly other health issues, could be in the same position?
Sheep farmers are generally busy people due to a range of factors, and are often times poor, along with others within the sector; a situation that is exacerbated at certain times of the year when there is a lot to be done within relatively narrow windows of opportunity, windows that are often constrained by factors completely beyond our control. We have all been there. Sadly some of those time pressures are to a certain extent self imposed; as an industry we do have a tendency to make rather too much of a virtue of hard work, sometimes to the point where we feel an element of guilt if we are not busy. In addition, our working practices often reflect that obsession with hard work; we have forgotten, particularly when in work mode, how to make the most of a bit of down time.
In reality if the opportunity arises there is nothing wrong with taking a bit of time out to reflect and relax a little; it may not be easy to find the time, but it is a lot easier if a conscious effort is made to make the time. There is also nothing wrong with looking critically at some of our working practices; there is no point in working hard simply for the sake of hard work (it happens). “Work smarter, not harder”, as the saying goes. Mental health amongst farmers has been relatively high profile recently and for good reason; we have as an industry been experiencing relatively difficult and uncertain times, but simply taking a bit of time to reflect and relax can really help put problems into some sort of context and perspective. I have frequently heard it said of young entrants to the sector, and I’m sure I have been guilty of it myself at times, “they just don’t see work”. That may be a fair criticism if there are obvious tasks that need to be addressed, but maybe, just maybe, if they have completed their work satisfactorily, it is simply that we have an issue with them still having the capacity to enjoy a bit of down time, something that many may have forgotten how to do.
The concept of being busy at all times is very much a product of the industrial revolution; sayings such as “the Devil makes work for idle hands” were simply attempts to justify what amounted to exploitation of factory and mill workers in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it is a concept that has sadly stayed with us. Pre-industrial agricultural workers were not idlers, they were not lazy. It was not an easy life; they worked hard, very hard when required, but they also knew how to enjoy time doing nothing. Shepherds, in particular, were often paid relatively well (when compared with other agricultural workers), for their skills not their time; for much of the year they would have spent hours alone with their flocks, keeping an eye out for problems but also taking time to enjoy their environment. Many were very good countrymen, understanding and enjoying the countryside they lived and worked in. But they were fully prepared, when required by circumstances such as at lambing, to commit to long and demanding hours (both physically and mentally) applying their skills in the care of their flocks.
I recognise that I am now, having retired, in the fortunate position of not only being relatively time-rich, but also able to a certain extent to determine my own timetable. In spite of this there are still those occasions when I wonder how I am going complete all that I need to do on a particular day and I still have a lot that I want to do (even if I don’t need it). As a child of the forties I have also reduced flock size to rather more manageable proportions (a somewhat roundabout way of saying that tasks, for some reason, seem to take a little longer than they used to); the net result is that I am now able to enjoy my sheep more. Along with this I have also learnt how to enjoy time doing nothing of note, something that took a while and did not come that easily. For example, I am now quite happy to spend time when I can, simply watching the flock, learning from my sheep. Animal behaviour has always been a particular interest of mine and spending time simply watching is a calm, relaxing time, but it also has its benefits. Having a greater depth of understanding of the flock and of individuals within the flock can make moving and handling sheep much easier and stress free for both the sheep and myself, so maybe it is not really wasted time.