Every year is different. Some years are marked by tough, resilient bags that imprison the lamb when it is born and can quickly suffocate it, unless the ewe or one of us clears the membrane from around its nose. Other years have featured lots of multiples, shortages of milk or copper deficiency – which in turn causes lambs to stagger. You can do something about some of these, but this season was the year of the BIG single. We keep detailed records of each ewe’s lambing record and usually they start out with a year or two of singles, then twins, then triplets and even, in some cases, quads. But it’s very unusual to slip back the other way: to have twins followed by a single. But not this year. And it would seem we’re by no means unique. Our feed rep tells me that the orders placed with the manufacturers of lambs’ ear tags are well down, and all his customers are moaning about difficult births because of huge single lambs.
We started in mid-March and got off to quite a slow start. Whenever that happens we check what the weather was like 21 weeks previously, when the rams were mating (tupping is the phrase we use) the ewes. In the past we have found that ewes and rams fail to get together and have fun if it’s pouring with rain. Can’t say I blame them. It would put me off my stroke. And lo and behold, it was very wet when we put the rams in. A week later it came dry and 21 weeks later the lambing rate picked up rapidly. Then again it was wet in November for a few days, and again things slowed down in late March. Finally it went dry and there was a little surge in the last week of lambing, including, appropriately enough, a big single (to a very small ewe) on the last day.
One of the reasons I like lambing, despite the sleepless nights and aching back, is the sheer sensoriness (for want of a better word) of it all: the smells, the warm steam off a new-born lamb on a cold morning, the sound of ewes chewing the cud and the sight of chickens picking their way through a crowd of sheep. And in the background the soothing tones of Classic FM providing background music for both sheep and their farmers. In an increasingly remote, hands-off, digital world we all need to get our hands dirty sometimes. I don’t plan to give up before I’m 80 – unless, of course, the government introduces some damn-fool regulation that makes farming for anything other than pure profit impossible (which Westminster and Brussels between them are perfectly capable of doing). Anyhow, this lambing I’ve tried to make the first two pictures a bit atmospheric: a very (20 seconds?) new –born lamb, being licked dry by its mother and a group of unlambed ewes contentedly chewing the cud in the barn on a sunny morning in early springtime.
My final three pictures (at the end of this post) are of that wonderful day when we release the first batch of ewes and lambs onto the new, lush spring pasture. In the past I would open the doors and feed them their concentrated feed out in the field, but a few years ago a lamb had its leg broken in the rush, so I now feed them in the small barn and then let them find their own, hesitant way out onto the grass. It’s much slower, and gentler, as the photos show: first a couple of lambs at the door, trying to work out what the new world out there is all about. Then a ewe barges past them. Finally everyone has to head out. It’s my favourite moment.
We lambed about three weeks later than in previous years, largely because we had to wait for doses of the Schmallenberg Disease vaccine which had to be administered a month before tupping. That may have been the excuse, but in actual fact it worked very much better, all round: we were able to turn the ewes and young lambs out onto wonderful rich grazing and all are doing well in the fabulous mid-spring sunshine. It has been so much less stressful than earlier in the year. All in all, a huge success. I even managed to plant out my potatoes during one of the quieter spells. And now I must stop this and return to the vegetable garden to sow a quick catch-crop of early green peas (Douce de Provence this year). Roll on May!