Once lambing starts there’s little time to think about anything other than keeping animals healthy and happy. We lamb in the field by day and shift to the shed during darkness hours and in bad weather.
After lambing they are penned for 24 hours, cementing bonding and ironing out problems. We optimistically work on the theory “where there is life, there is hope.” Sheep are renowned pessimists so this creates an interesting and frustrating challenge. When disaster strikes shepherds wonder why they do it, but there’s always some triumphs to counteract these. Helping the safe birth of any animal is immensely satisfying.
Shepherding at lambing has similarities with running an accident and emergency department – except the clientele don’t answer you back. Accurate assessment, diagnosis, prompt treatment and flow through the pens and back out onto grass is key to its smooth functioning. Our visitors enthuse about bottle feeding, but I’m less keen. I don’t automatically take one triplet off, as milky ewes can rear three surprisingly well. We foster lambs from those that have inadequate milk supply but towards the end of lambing it’s tricky to find suitable foster mothers.
Life would be boring if it ran smoothly, wouldn’t it? We were astounded when despite the April night frosts, icy winds, snow showers and slow grass growth, two ewes dropped dead with magnesium deficiency. You might have been concerned for our sanity had you spotted us crawling towards the orphans tucked up beside their departed mother. When two small worried faces peeped in our direction we froze. Childhood games of grandmothers footsteps are all good training for this kind of caper. Our patience was rewarded and we carried home more lambs requiring regular feeding. We’ve also had to retrieve a few non doers from the field, their mothers having gained a ticket for market. Some women collect shoes and handbags: I like to be different, I’m collecting sock lambs!
One of our largest and scattiest ewe lambs gave birth to “Tiny Tim.” It virtually required a magnifying glass to spy him amongst the straw. Unfortunately his mother considered her milk bar as an accessory for show not use. This is when I became more intimately acquainted with my sheep than is strictly speaking desirable as pinioning the ewe lamb in the pen with my head and shoulders was necessary in order to suspend and latch Timmy onto feed. In fact I’m wondering if I might have some rugby scrum potential!
The foxes have taken a few lambs but luckily my chickens have evaded capture and we’re enjoying their freshly laid eggs.
Middle daughter has cooked us some delicious cakes to help boost our energy levels. I successfully coerced her into helping with pen work. While discussing sheep we were interrupted by a voice emitting from her pocket: “sorry, I didn’t quite catch that, can you repeat?” We laughed: these smart ‘phones clearly aren’t clever enough to understand shepherds’ lingo. She also had a narrow escape with the mule, when off shutting the gate. Our ancient loveable, blind, deaf and lame collie, who likes to feel useful inadvertently stepped on the accelerator. Luckily middle daughter is a fast runner and sheep had sense enough to get out the way. The moral of the story? Leave the old dog at home.
Housework has to be done, and visitors heralded a flurry of activity. I now understand why we ran short on straw this winter. I’m shocked by quite how much has made its way into our house. The straw managed to block my Dyson. The culprit ? Have I mentioned “The Boy” recently? It seems the move to country life is permanent as he’s sold his London flat. He proved himself useful during lambing, allotting himself the title “night manager.” He did a good job, and occasionally I sleepily but successfully guided him through a few tricky deliveries over the ‘phone. I’m looking forward to being made redundant.
Calving has gone well. In our early farming days we kept native breeds and thought ourselves very progressive when we switched to double muscled continentals. Strange how things turn full circle, as “The Boy” insists the way forward is to have Sussex cattle. We now have a small nucleus suckler herd of 17 Sussex running alongside our continentals. It’s an ongoing family debate, time will tell. However it’s so lovely to see cattle out at grass, they all look a picture.
It’s a revelation to learn that I live “on the edge.” England is divided into three TB risk areas, high, low and edge. Regulations introduced in April regarding the 60 day post movement testing for cattle travelling out of East Sussex is a disincentive for prospective buyers. Those selling store cattle and pedigree breeders are therefore being financially disadvantaged. Also sadly there will be less cattle attending our local agricultural show due to new changes. Cold comfort for those affected, but it’s all part of a strategy aiming to achieve officially TB free status for the low risk area in England by 2019.
Farmers are yet to receive notification but new movement reporting rules are in the pipeline. Present cattle tracing system links and sole occupancy authorities are being withdrawn. These will be replaced by a new 10 mile rule. Separate holdings within this radius can be merged in some scenarios. No doubt the devil will be in the detail and I’m sure that when the paperwork arrives it will make good reading. And farmers will have to adjust their practices to the implications therein.
Update on strange findings while out lookering. A fellow farmer tells me he found a man armed with bow and arrows, dancing naked in his field. Country life is such fun.