Katie, lambs and human frailty

Abigail, Barney, Clodagh, Desmond…? I had to Google the names our weather forecasters have given the succession of storms that have lashed the British Isles this winter. We’ve just experienced storm Katie, which the Daily Mirror predicted would be an ‘explosive weather bomb’, but which turned out to be fierce, but not disastrous – for us, at least. The winds were very strong, but we were only hit by 11mm of rain, which was a huge relief, as the land is only just starting to recover from an unusually wet winter. As it’s been so wet, last season’s female lambs (what we term gimmers) are still in the barn, but I do need the space now, as the current crop of lambs is starting to appear.

Being on the east side of England, we don’t tend to get hit hard by weather systems that come in from the Atlantic; by the time rain reaches us, it tends to be quite thin and drizzly. In fact, droughts are often a bigger problem for us in these days of climate change. But after an unusually warm start in December and January, February turned wet; then March was cold, with one or two heavy rain storms. As a result, the grazing hasn’t yet fully recovered, so I’m very loath to put sheep out until, that is, temperatures start to pick up. It’s proving quite a difficult lambing season to manage, but at least the sun is getting warmer by the day: that’s the beauty of mid-Spring.

Not many of you will suffer from this, but one of the problems of being near-perfect, is that I rarely make mistakes – and most of those are too trivial to worry about. Then once in a blue moon, I make a slightly bigger slip-up. And I’m afraid that’s what happened last November – but as with all my slightly larger errors, it was mainly somebody else’s fault. Having said that, I suppose I should concede that I could have been more careful. What happened was this. It was the first week of November and we had just removed the tups – the rams – from the ewes after their month-long stay together, and as we always do, we sat down at the kitchen table to count the 21 weeks until we could expect the first lamb. Normally by November we have next year’s diaries with us, so we do the calculation together and I can catch any errors that Maisie might make (it’s rarely the other way around). But this year, our new diaries hadn’t come through, so I did the calculation on my own. And this was when the error crept in.

I do the calculation using the Year Planner pages at the front and back of the diary. So I counted the weeks that remained in 2015, after tupping had finished (I think there were 9), and then I carried that figure forward to the 2016 Planner, but in the process I mistakenly advanced the number by one. That counting error meant that I (I nearly said we) miscalculated the start of lambing by a week. So this time last week, we were getting up at dawn and were patrolling the lambing shed every hour, to the undisguised amusement of the assembled ewes, who looked up at us as if we were crazy. I have never seen so many animals chew the cud with such undisguised amusement. I could read it in their eyes: they knew exactly what I had done. Eventually after three days it slowly dawned on me that something had gone wrong. So naturally I accused Maisie, who gently reminded me that I had done the calculation. In all fairness, I’d probably have been more assertive had I been her, but then I’m male. So that’s how we – whoops, I – made our first and only mistake in thirty years of sheep-keeping… Dream on.

The cold, dry high-pressure weather that has dominated March has been good for us. It has helped keep disease levels down, and although the grass isn’t as advanced as I’d like, there’s still plenty of time for it to catch-up. The very first ewe to lamb was four days early, which is quite unusual, but as it was her first lamb we can make allowances for her. Two days later, an older ewe lost twins to the horrible disease toxoplasmosis. But we caught it quite quickly and I think have been able to disinfect the area quite effectively. Modern farm disinfectants are very potent. I then put the ewe in with the gimmers and with luck several of them will acquire immunity from her. That at least is the theory – and it does seem to work.

Today, we must inject the gimmers against soil-borne (clostridial) diseases and give them a dose of wormer. Then tomorrow, or the next day, we can turn them out. But now it’s time to stop writing and get back to work in the barn. I’ll try to do another blog post shortly, now that I’ve managed to get on top of my two big editing tasks (the Stonehenge book for Head of Zeus and the second Alan Cadbury adventure for Unbound). Isn’t it great when life gets simple, again? Suddenly you can see the wood for the trees – even if they are unusually leafless for the time of year.

The very first lamb, born four days prematurely.

The very first lamb, born four days prematurely.

Some of the lambs born in the first days of lambing.

Some of the lambs born in the first days of lambing.

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