I’ll discuss the actual lambs and their mothers shortly, but I want to start with what you might think is a digression, but is nothing of the sort. In fact I sometimes think it’s the main reason I like to do practical things such as tending a garden and running a small farm. It was also why I decided to become a field archaeologist: somebody who worked out of doors with his hands. I don’t know, maybe it’s the Buddhist lurking deep within my secular psyche, but I have always found physical work the greatest aid to thought. Put me in a library and my mind usually goes blank. No, for whatever reason, my imagination works overtime when I’m actually doing something useful. Physical work also helps me relax and of course it keeps me fit. But most of all, it gives me an unusual perspective on life, which still frequently surprises me. You might think that being grounded, it would inspire reactionary, right-wing views. But in my experience the opposite is the case. Take the current lambing season, which is nearly over.
Lambing began on March 21st, which was more or less when the current General Election campaign notched up a gear from a tolerable level of background bickering to an intrusive, ubiquitous cacophony, which is getting increasingly hard to ignore, without smashing radio sets or televisions. And they’re all so rehearsed, with an army of spin-doctors guiding their every move. I’m glad to say, however, that these are not the kind of thoughts one has in the barn during lambing. I can remember a wonderful cartoon in the Farmers Weekly, which showed an old shepherd gently snoozing in the lambing shed, sitting on a rickety car seat, with slumbering ewes chewing the cud and lambs asleep all around him. A cat and Border Collie lie snoring at his feet. Even a blackbird on its nest is dreaming. Then a radio perched on a straw bale blares out: ‘It’s the final run-up to the General Election and the whole country is urgently discussing the issues that separate the two major parties…’ But in the barn nobody moves a muscle. The snoring continues.
I have to say that when I’m in with the ewes and lambs I feel a bit like the great William Cobbett when he was on his famous Rural Rides (1830). These sketches of rural life are far more than just local portraits: they’re searching journalism and satire, too – which is why they remain relevant to this day. I would never presume to be a patch on Cobbett, who would thunder against the financiers in the Great Wen (a boil), his name for the City of London, but I do find that my sheep, like his rides, keep me grounded. They help me sort out what really matters in modern life by providing a benchmark of sanity in an increasingly weird world.
I believe passionately that the simple things of life hold the clues to happiness. I remember back in the 1980s when I had been driving a mechanical digger for over a month, painstakingly removing alluvial flood clay from the surface of the Neolithic site at Etton. I was at a reception at a Cambridge College when a highly successful and hugely ambitious academic, who was a year or two younger than me, asked me what I’d been doing of late. So I told him about driving the digger. I’ll never forget the look of incredulity that crept across his face as I described my work. When I’d finished, he asked me how I had managed to survive the sheer boredom of the task. I can remember looking at him and thinking he would never understand the truth in a thousand years: such jobs are only tedious if, like him, you think you’re somehow above them. If, on the other hand, you enter into them wholeheartedly you discover they are both stimulating and rewarding. But I knew I could never explain that to him. So I didn’t try. What the hell. But I was very happy with the way things had actually gone. Not only did I improve my digger-driving techniques, but I had an extended opportunity to think long and hard about the site: why it had been constructed over 5,000 years ago and how it had been preserved by the flood clays I was so carefully machining-off. In fact those thought processes haven’t stopped, as you’ll discover when you read chapter 3, of my latest non-fiction book, Home. I still recall those early weeks at Etton, because when I returned home at the end of the day, just as I do now after a stint in the lambing shed, my brain was as tired as my body.
So much for my initial digression. Now what sort of a season has 2015 been? The first thing to say is that it has been very good – far better than last year when losses were quite high and we confronted some genetic problems, which was why we bought-in two entirely new rams from Wales. As I write we’ve only got one ewe (of 33) left to lamb and so far we haven’t lost a single lamb. That’s never happened to us before. The vast majority of ewes have produced twins, so we don’t have any cade triplet third lambs to raise on bottles. And again, that’s never happened to us before.
Some of this is doubtless due to nature. The late winter was cold and dry, which didn’t encourage disease. The hay we made last summer was excellent and remarkably free from dusty fungal spores, which certainly make Maisie and I cough, let alone the sheep. Then the weather warmed-up quite sharply in the first week of April, giving us an excellent first flush of grass, when I turned the sheep out on April 7th, last Tuesday. We continue to feed the lactating ewes with a high protein (20%) compound for a minimum of three to four weeks after lambing, as this gives the lambs a good start in life and spares the poor ewe from depleting her own reserves of fat and even of muscle.
In the past I have started to feed the in-lamb (pregnant) ewes about six weeks before the first lamb was due to appear. This was fine when our aim was to raise large fat lambs for the market. But recently we have switched our focus from meat lambs to gimmers, in other words, to future breeding ewes, which command far higher prices. By delaying the pre-birth feeding we have reduced the size of new-born lambs and with that, birthing problems. Even so, some of the last-born have been pretty huge, especially the singles.
So there’s still plenty to be done – to keep both body and mind active. Oh, and one other thing I should have mentioned at the outset: lambing is great fun: we all enjoy it – even the poor ewes, once the painful bit is over.