It’s March and lambing time is upon us again here at St Oswald’s Farm, so what is lambing time all about and what’s it really like?
Although I’m a farmer’s daughter, I had little to no knowledge of sheep and of lambing time, dairy cows were more my area of expertise so marrying a sheep farmer also meant I had much to learn in my new role and I discovered I had little idea of what lambing was all about. I knew people said it was hard work, but farming is, so what could be so hard about sheep giving birth and all the lambs running off into the fields to frolic and skip! I really couldn’t understand what the fuss could be about. I was in for a bit of a shock!
Lambing for us symbolises a new year, new beginnings, new life and is the start of our farming year. Even long before March arrives we’re discussing when tups go out and in turn what date LAMBING will begin.
Conversation then turns to how fast the ewes have been tupped and which week will probably be the busiest when lambing time arrives, and ultimately which week I need to take off work.
The ewes are scanned in January and this tells us which ewes are carrying a single lamb, a pair or a triplet or in some cases more than that. During scanning the ewes are marked on their side, blue dot for a single lamb, red dot for a pair and an orange line for a triplet…I discovered this was something I would need to know when March arrived each year.
Ideally ewes would all give birth without any difficulties, they wouldn’t have lambs that are coming backwards, they wouldn’t have lambs not presenting with front feet first, they wouldn’t have dead lambs, they wouldn’t have lambs too big to deliver. They wouldn’t give up half way through delivery to just push a head out and decide they can’t be bothered any more. They wouldn’t give birth and then shoot off to an entirely different part of the shed and deny all knowledge that any lamb in that shed is theirs, they wouldn’t feel they only want one lamb even though they had given birth to two or even three and then for no apparent reason decide they fancy licking someone else’s lambs so that lamb ends up unwanted by their own mother. They wouldn’t think that food is more important than their offspring and trample over their lambs to get to their food bowl, they wouldn’t lie on top of their lamb and suffocate them. I had not anticipated that sheep aren’t always natural mothers and the work and torment this creates and just occasionally the heartbreak it brings….I’ve had to toughen up!
Any preconceptions I had quickly made way for reality when I learnt what lambing time entailed. My first experience of a lamb being born wasn’t a great one and it is a moment I won’t ever forget. It was before we were married and I’d called at the farm to see how it was going. John was on hands and knees lambing a ewe who was pair marked, so I was pretty sure I was going to be witness to a couple of lovely pearly white lambs being born. However despite John’s best efforts both lambs were dead, there was nothing he could do. I just watched silently. The mother stood up and turned around to greet her new offspring and John just said to her ‘I’m sorry lass’. It seems a cruel flaw in nature that some ewes with perfectly healthy lambs couldn’t give a damn about their new arrivals but some like this ewe are good mothers and she kept nudging her dead lambs and trying to get them to stand up and licked them for all her worth. I was used to death, I’d grown up on a farm but this still really affected me. The poor dead lambs who would never play in the fields, the lambless new mother and John, sorry for her but quietly accepting that these things just happen.
The one blessing of being very busy at lambing time is that there can be a lot of sheep lambing all at the same time so you are quickly taken from your current thoughts and have to move on to the next situation. A ewe in the next pen quickly spits out a pair of lambs and they need to have their navels iodined & dosed and be penned to ensure the mother and lambs are mothered up properly. Another ewe has decided she doesn’t like one of her lambs and so you’re on your hands and knees holding her to prevent her knocking the lamb so that the lamb can feed. Another ewe is about to lamb but you notice it’s a back foot or a tail coming first, so she’s going to need assistance. You spot a lamb in another pen who doesn’t look well, it may just be cold and need some time under the heat lamp or maybe the mother isn’t milking well and doesn’t have enough to support her lambs. You’re always on the look out for something.
If lambs aren’t getting the milk they need from their mothers or a mother dies and leaves her lambs , those lambs find themselves in the pet pen and need to be bottle fed every few hours, believe me when I tell you this is only fun the first few times you do it! You have the eager beavers who would glug anything down in vast quantities, you have those quiet stand at the back types who won’t suck anything, you have the ones who want to drink but can’t master the art of sucking and that we aptly call ‘donnard’, and then there’s the ones who persistently find an escape route out of the pen and you spend your day putting them back into the pen from wherever they have roamed.
The pet pen can however be a dangerous place. The lambs can often be in the pen for a good while until a new mother can be found and you find yourself talking to them and becoming attached to them, but I’ve learnt from experience not to get to attached and not to name them. My mind goes back to ‘Jeremy’ who I nurtured and fed and then when we realised he was blind it just made me love him more. But as well as blindness Jeremy had other ailments and he lived only a few weeks, needless to say, I cried! John was right best not to name them.
Ewes that have lost lambs will be given others to ‘adopt’, however this isn’t as simple as it may sound. Ewes rely on smell to identify their own lambs and if a lamb doesn’t smell right she generally won’t want to know. The adoption process can take days or even weeks and ewes and lambs are left together with the ewe restrained so that she can’t harm the lamb and the lamb in turn takes on the smell of the ewe in the hope she will accept it as her own…it doesn’t always work.
A much better way if your timing is right, is that a single lamb is being born at the same time as a triplet so that the 3rd lamb can be given to ewe with the single so that both ewes end up with a pair of lambs each..another flaw in nature, ewes only have two teats and can therefore generally only provide for two lambs adequately.
A ewe and her lambs stay in an individual pen for a couple of days, during which time they are pair marked, that’s the numbers on their sides that you will see, and they are also ringed, some tup lambs are castrated and all have their tails ringed to shorten them and prevent future parasitic problems (fly strike). Mothers and offspring are then moved into a slightly larger pens of 5 or 6 ewes with lambs to ensure they are finding each other, or mothered up properly, and all still feeding adequately before being put out into the fields.
Feeding time for all the pens is twice a day and this is hugely time consuming, countless feed bowls and water buckets to fill, hay nets and hecks to replenish, clean straw for all the pens all the time and water buckets to fill again because they’ve knocked it over or decided to poo in their water!
Lambing time is undoubtedly hard work, and is hugely affected by the weather, but it gets over, although that’s probably easy for me to say because it isn’t me that it affects most. I only do days in the lambing shed and work it between school runs, my day job, changeover days in the holiday cottage and mealtimes. I ensure there’s a full fridge, meals on the table and plenty of flapjack and cake to keep energy levels up. John is out there for at least 18 hours every day and sleep is somewhat of a luxury for him, however I know he wouldn’t have it any other way, he loves what he does and that includes lambing time, with all that it may bring!
John and I are both passionate about where we live and the life we have here at St Oswald’s Farm. We love welcoming our guests here and really don’t mind answering questions, explaining what’s happening on the farm and why. We are so fortunate to live in this beautiful spot on top of Hadrian’s Wall , we love the life it allows us to have, we love the landscape, the views, the scenery and most importantly we absolutely love to share it with our guests.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this small insight into part of our farming life and please do feel free to call in anytime in late March/early April , you’ll be very welcome to feed the pet pen!
See you next month when it’s all over!