Lambing’s Nearly Finished…

I’m writing this on Tuesday, April 11th and we’re approaching the final week of lambing. Easter, late this year, is next weekend and we are down to just four ewes who haven’t yet lambed – and one of them, I’m fairly sure, isn’t in-lamb (or pregnant, to use the human term). We reduced the flock to a third of its former size three years ago and in those days it paid us to have all the ewes scanned. That way we could separate out the multiples from the singles and indeed the empty – to use another shepherds’ term. We recovered the scanning costs by being able to feed the flock more efficiently and it also meant that empty ewes didn’t get over-nourished, and frankly, fat. So if that single empty ewe doesn’t very soon show some sign that she’s going to lamb, she’ll be put on a crash diet, as very fat sheep are prone to all sorts of health problems – heart attacks etc. – just like their human counterparts.

It’s been ideal lambing weather: dry and not-too-hot, but with the notable exception of last weekend, when Cambridgeshire reached 25o C (almost 80o F). Mercifully, we’re much closer to the coast, so we didn’t get quite that hot, but it was warm enough to make the milk in the orphan lambs’ feeding bucket start to go off – and that’s very unusual indeed. All the warm weather has also meant that the grass has grown strongly. Back in mid-March, I was seriously concerned that we would have to keep the ewes and lambs in the barn until mid-, even late, April, but in the event that didn’t prove necessary. We let them out on Sunday April 2nd and, as always, I took a photograph.

The first ewes are turned out with their lambs. Note the very long, and lush, grass.

The first ewes are turned out with their lambs. Note the very long, and lush, grass.

The sheep that have been turned out still have access to the barn, where they can take their lambs at night, or when it turns wet. We continue feeding the ewes who have lambed for about three or four weeks, as they need very high levels of nutrition to maintain a supply of rich milk, during those first crucially important weeks of a lamb’s life. The feed is spread along wooden troughs standing on the paved yard outside the barn. While the ewes jostle for food, the lambs, very wisely, get out of their way. And this is where the lamb flock begins to form. In the past, I have seen lambs badly trampled in the scrum for food; so now I always give plenty of warning that I’m approaching with the buckets. That way, the lambs have time to beat a hasty retreat.

Feeding the turned-out ewes in the yard outside the barn.

Feeding the turned-out ewes in the yard outside the barn.

The lamb flock begins to form.

The lamb flock begins to form.

I love watching the way the lamb flock starts to develop its own style and identity. It always begins at feeding time and often with a few, very tentative, leaps and races. By late spring these have developed into fully-fledged steeplechase-style-stampedes that reach a crescendo in the hour or so before sunset. In most years, the balance of male to female lambs is roughly 50:50, but this year something has gone wrong with the genetic statistics, and the current score is 17 females and 28 males. I can remember learning about the research of the great Czech geneticist (and monk) Gregor Mendel, who died in 1884. Mendel effectively invented the modern science of genetics and in my opinion his name should be up there alongside the likes of Darwin and Einstein. A very great man. He predicted the 50:50 gender split, and I have been amazed at how often he has been shown to be correct. Indeed, this is the one year in the thirty we have been keeping sheep, that proves that the normal is indeed what it is: statistically (i.e. probabilistically) normal. I only wish that the imbalance had been the other way around, because we get far more money for our female than our male lambs. Still, that’s life.

The imbalance began at the start of lambing, with three successive male twins. It then slowly redressed itself, before slewing back and is now showing a slight tendency to favour females. As normal, the later singles have been huge, because the ewes have had longer to feed. This female lamb, only about three hours old when I took the picture, is a fine example:

A big single female Lleyn lamb, with her mother.

A big single female Lleyn lamb, with her mother.

And finally, to a sad story that began with a mistake. When I was looking through the pictures of lambing on my mobile phone, I came across one that had happened, in error. For some reason, presumably when I was putting my phone back in my pocket, I had photographed the front of my very, very tired, torn and, frankly, malodorous lambing trousers. At the time, it made me smile. And to my amazement I had just enough phone signal in the barn (a very rare event indeed!), so I Tweeted it. To my amazement, it got ‘liked’ by lots of people – who might well have changed their minds, had they been able to smell the image! But you, my faithful and forbearing blog followers, deserve, and expect, a better-composed and altogether higher quality picture. So here it is, taken with my Lumix camera, which is fitted with a Leica lens (no less).

The last picture of my trousers: eloquent witnesses to the ravages of time and the shepherd’s life. Farewell, old friends.

The last picture of my trousers: eloquent witnesses to the ravages of time and the shepherd’s life. Farewell, old friends.

And as you can see, the trousers are just finishing their third lambing season. They began life as moleskin jeans, but about four years ago all the hairy knap had worn away, leaving just the bare cloth beneath. So they’re not particularly warm or damp-proof any more – which is why they will have to go. They’re altogether too foetid to recycle. So I’m afraid they’re for the dreaded black bin of death. Landfill. Burial: a common grave, together with Kentucky fried chicken bones, dead goldfish and broken tape cassettes. As I said in that Tweet: it is so sad. Farewell old friends. Your time for immortality has come…

Gulp, …           gulp, …            gulp.

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