So went the opening lines to Noel Harrison’s 1969 song Windmills of Your Mind, a song that, I am sure, will be remembered by a lot of UK sheep keepers, although many will be reluctant to admit to this; a reflection of the average age of those involved.
A song that, in part, describes the sheep industry. A continuous cycle of events; some regarded with enthusiasm, others with apprehension. Entering February generally signals the rapid approach of lambing time. One of those events that is oft regarded with equal measures of both apprehension and enthusiasm.
Lambing is a special time of year. Sheep keepers are blessed every year with the opportunity to see new life enter the world in abundance; blessed to be the bringers of one of the key indicators that spring is on its way – a moot point in the eyes of sheep keepers to whom the arrival of spring has more to do with the prevailing weather conditions than a date on the calendar. Even now, having seen thousands of lambs come into the world, I still regard lambing as a particularly special time. If and when I ever cease to view it as such, that will be the time to give up. Hence the measure of enthusiasm with which it is generally considered.
The apprehension derives from the uncertainty. Lambing is approached hoping beyond hope that all that has gone before, the previous six or seven months of planning and effort, the preparation for tupping, tupping, care and nutrition during pregnancy, veterinary care etc, have all come together to provide for a trouble-free lambing and the welcoming into the flock of a sufficiency of good, strong, healthy lambs with caring, maternal mums, able to provide adequate supplies of colostrum and plentiful milk. But, regardless of how much planning and preparation has been done or how well it has been achieved, it is only when the first lambs hit the ground that there is any affirmation that everything has truly fallen into place.
The relief associated with seeing the arrival of those first, fit, strong, healthy lambs, tucked up with a full belly and a caring and concerned mum, is generally rather short lived, as with it comes the realisation that lambing is now truly underway, that there is no time to relax, just the rest of the flock to deal with and the hope that the remainder of lambing proceeds as successfully. In addition, lambing is one of those times that is eagerly awaited but, once commenced, its conclusion is regarded with just as much enthusiasm. Only once the last lambs have been safely delivered and turned out with mum can shepherds begin to relax, just a little.
Lambing is almost always a time of peaks and troughs. A few difficult lambings or a couple of losses, particularly when you happen to be tired, cold, exhausted… can generate some real low spots; conversely, simply watching contented ewes with equally contented lambs out on some good grass on a nice sunny morning can elevate the spirits. Lambing can be stressful and is a time of mixed emotions; a time when many, due to the demands of lambing, are effectively confined to the farm, isolated from much of normal social contact. It is a time when a simple phone call from a friend or colleague can mean a great deal, even if it simply serves to share a few problems. So don’t forget to “phone a friend” to see how their lambing is going.
A successful lambing is always about attention to detail. Other factors, such as the weather, can of course be a contributory and sometimes confounding factor, but even when lambing on one’s own, a simple recording system, a check list, can make a big difference in ensuring that no details are overlooked. It is a sad fact that lamb mortality remains at an unacceptably high level, not just in the UK but across Europe.
Despite efforts over decades to achieve significant reductions, little progress has been made. Some lamb losses are inevitable; they will vary depending on breed, system, location and weather but, whatever the specifics, losses will always be lower in flocks where there is good attention to detail. Visit any lambing shed and one can almost guarantee that a messy, untidy, set up will have a higher level of lamb mortality than one that is kept tidy and well organised. Outdoor lambing systems will be similar; good, consistent practices will almost inevitably generate better results than the contrary.
A well organised and managed system does not carry significant additional costs, but can bring substantial benefits, particularly with current lamb prices. Every lamb counts, every lamb lost through lack of attention to detail represents £100-plus thrown away; not that finances should be the main consideration – every lamb lost is a significant and often unacceptable compromise to lamb welfare.
Don’t blame the fox, who has simply taken advantage of the failure to notice and deal with a starving/hypothermic lamb, for an easy feed.
Have a good lambing!