Thursday, 24 April 2008

Lambing on the Preseli Hills

April is lambing time for our little flock of Lleyn ewes. This is the story of this year's lambing time and the characters that make up the flock.

The 30 ewes (and a few hangers on, more about them later) came into the barn on Good Friday. They were quite pleased about this! They actually wanted to come in sooner, but we have to wait for a dry day so their wool is dry when they come in. If we brought in sopping wet sheep they would steam, the water vapour would hit the barn's metal roof and then it would spend the rest of the lambing period 'raining' on the poor sheep (and us) below. It could also cause problems such as pneumonia. So they have to be dry, then they can come in.

There then usually follows a period where the sheep laze about on piles of soft hay not doing very much while we consult the calender, consult the ram, scratch our heads, count days and wonder when the first lamb is going to be born. Mum checks them every four hours, I check them between 11pm and midnight. Invariably, as they are fed at 5pm, they will lamb at 11pm, but it could be any time.

Here's the first lamb. This is One Spot and his brother. One Spot was born first, on April 3rd, then the ewe went off to have her second and forgot all about him. When we reminded her, she refused to believe he was hers and wouldn't feed him. Aargh! We thought. Great start to lambing. Mum, who is In Charge where sheep are concerned, gave him some colostrum and now he is bottle fed. His mum has agreed that she should look after him... sort of.

It went very cold again just after lambing had begun so we found the heat lamp. One Spot broke it, so another bulb was bought and the lamp positioned out of lambs' reach. They love it.

After One Spot was born the rest followed on in dribs and drabs. We had a few problems, but nothing serious. The main problem we have is when they get their legs tucked back a bit, so you get a nose and two hooves, instead of two hooves, a bit of leg and a pair of knees, then a nose. What we have to do then is pull gently on the hooves until the knees come out. I try to get one leg longer than the other as this offsets the shoulders and makes the lamb narrower for the ewe's pelvis. The most stuck one arrived one day when Hannah and Rosie had friends round after school. They watched agog as it took both mum and I to pull out an enormous lamb. The children had been astonished to see the lamb's face poking out of the back of the ewe, with its little tongue sticking out, looking rather blue. But we delivered it quickly and it was soon up on its feet with its tongue back to a more normal pink colour.

One thing about having a closed flock (which means we don't buy in any new ewes, we breed our own replacements and just buy a new ram once in a while) means the ewes have very strong family ties. These two, above, our records confirm, are twins. They lambed within a few hours of each other and refused to be penned separately. They spent one night taking their pens apart so they could be together, so we gave in and they now have a double room.

The mother of these two is across the yard in the stable which acts as a holding area before the ewes and lambs go out in the field. She may have a new set of lambs to look after, but she's still keeping tabs on these two and her new grandchildren. One reason that lambing is so noisy is that the various families are bleating at each other from waiting pen, to lambing pen, to stable, to field.

This is Chops, our pet sheep, one of the hangers-on. He was fully intended to be chops, joints, mince etc, and when he was being bottle fed we made it clear to everyone, including my children who were then aged two and four, that he would be on the dinner table one day. They were happy about this. Then we gathered up that year's bunch of lambs to label up the ones going off to slaughter. Chops was duly labelled with a big blue dot on his head. Then the others were a pain to catch. Chop is easy to catch. In fact the difficult thing is getting rid of him. He actually helped me catch the others, then, as I was sitting on the floor trimming the woolly backside of one of the others, Chops came over, put his head on my shoulder, leaned, nuzzled and cuddled me. So we put a big red cross on his side to say "not this one" and he has stayed. Who could eat a sheep this cute? Not me!

Other hangers-on include a couple of hoggets (yearling sheep) which failed to finish as lamb last year and will be sold this year instead or kept on for another year as mutton. There's also a bunch of ewe lambs who won't have their first lambs until next year.

This is the daddy. This is Baary, our Lleyn ram, who arrived, many years ago as a ram lamb and did a great deal of baaing, hence his name. He's a lovely benign old chap now, but we can't use him next year so we have to either take the heartbreaking decision of sending him off for slaughter, which seems very mean, or find someone to swap rams with. Needless to say, we'll be working on the latter.

This is our other bottlefed lamb this year. This one's called Timmy because she (I know!) is tiny and sounds like Shaun the Sheep's little dummy sucking friend. The mum's a bit young and clueless and should not have had a lamb this year, but oops, these things happen.

This lamb always sleeps on his mum's lovely soft comfy back. I'm not sure the ewe entirely approves! The arrangement is fine until the ewe decides to get to her feet...

Once the lambs are clean, dry and strong and have fed well they get rings on their balls (if boys) and on their tails (if girls), the ewes get their one and only dose of wormer, as approved under our organic agreement. We're Soil Association registered organic and don't routinely worm. Instead we have a strict grassland rotation plan and we select for ewes which don't get worms. The lambs then have to be tagged - double tags for the ewe lambs, single tags for the rams - which gives them an odd lop-eared look as the tags are too big and heavy for their ears, but the government says we must do this, so we do. Then they spend a few days in the stable in a small group, waiting for a nice bit of sunshine so they can go outside in the field.

So that is the story of this year's lambing. We still have three left to lamb. They're getting a bit disgruntled with us as we keep peering under them at their udders to see how close to lambing they are! It won't be long, then they'll all be out in the spring sunshine eating the new grass.


  1. Woah! That was brilliant! I am a complete ignoramus about the lambing process and it all seems much clearer now. Poor One Spot being forgotten by Mum (actually I was guilty of almost feeding the wrong baby after Lily was born so have some sympathy for mum!). As for Chops rounding up the other sheep and nuzzling you, that is priceless. And lovely photos too.

  2. Lambs in the sunshine - a lovely sight. Must make all the hard work worthwhile. I hope!

  3. Wonderful! A real insight into the whole lambing process - I had no idea sheep could be such characters. And fabulous photos, too - I particularly love the one perched up on her mum's back wondering how on earth she's going to get down. Just fabulous! (Busy mum indeed!)

  4. I'm an ignoramus too. Love the pictures of the lamb on its mother's back, so dear.

  5. Lovely photos of your sheep. I'm so gald Chops has escaped the dinner table, how could you even think about it!

  6. we have five left to produce ...I am a shattered shepherdess. i love the characters of the family sheep. We have a great great grandma who always HAS to be with each of her daughters as they lamb ...grunting away. People dont believe me when I say sheep have such characters but I think when you only have 30 odd you have the time to suss them out.

  7. Sheep really are characters aren't they and they do develop close bonds with each other - was amused by the taking apart of the pen.

    Thank you for the insight into lambing.


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