The start of the Lambing Live series on BBC TV last night brought back memories.
For three years, while searching for our current house, we rented a cottage on a farm. I’ve written about some of the incidental characters on the blog before: the geese, ducks and pigs. But the real business was sheep.
From the comfort of the cottage it looked an idyllic life. The shepherd didn’t bother with a watch. His day of work was defined by the seasons. In the normal course of events he was up at first light and retired at dusk. It didn’t take long for my love of animals to make itself known and we were welcomed to get involved.
The shepherd did his best to shield me from the commercial realities of life. Lambs were the primary source of income, supplemented by the sale of fleece. The huge double decker animal transporters arrived very early, before we were awake. As long as they didn’t actually hit the cottage (the gap between it and the wall opposite was really rather tight), I mostly saw nothing and all was well.
Heads and Tails
The busiest time of the year was of course Spring.
He had a carefree attitude to most things did the shepherd, an endearing part of his character which he would promote to the full. Long before March I would be pestering him constantly, anxious to know when the first lambs were due. “Dunno, I’ve got my dates all mixed up” was the best I could ever do. I learnt to read the signs though. Barn clearing operations were the most obvious of all.
But one year a family emergency called the shepherd away. By the time he got back lambing was imminent and it was all systems go.
That Saturday morning Mike and I took up pitchforks and helped him spread straw around the floor of the barn. Good grief, that’s hard work. Straw is heavy when it’s compressed in a bale. A life at a desk does not strong arm muscles make and then there’s the constant twisting of waist and hips. It was all I could do to lift a wine glass that night. The following day we constructed the lambing pens and not before time. A goodly proportion were occupied by dusk.
Some of the ewes lambed by day out in the fields but at night they were brought inside.
That Spring it was freezing cold. After dinner each evening we would pile on the layers, thick coats and welly boots and go up to the barn to see what was happening.
It was also the first year the BBC ran Lambing Live. We would watch it while we were having our meal and then, somewhat tongue in cheek, give the lifelong shepherd the benefit of presenter Kate Humble’s advice.
But watching the lambs being born was captivating. And humbling in the extreme, no pun intended. Some nights we were stood in the open sided barn for hours, getting home well after midnight unable to feel our toes. The best bits for me were those first tentative steps from a bleating lamb. Helped by the ewe’s devoted cleaning how quickly they came around, from a wet scrawny heap to recognisable fluffy lamb in the space of half an hour.
This particular breed of sheep is well known for multiple births. If the ewe couldn’t cope, or a lamb was rejected and unable to be ‘adopted’ elsewhere, it found its way into the ‘orphans’ bay. These lambs were hand reared. You can imagine who had her hand up first for that.. When the number of orphans exceeded the time available the ‘rubber mummy’ turned up in support, a home made contraption consisting of a modified plastic milk formula container with three teats sticking out of the side.
All the lambs grew so fast and it was lovely to see them frolicking in the fields. Naturally inquisitive, they spent all their days exploring. Inevitably, as here around the duck pond, they came into contact with the geese. A head to head stand off would ensue, but even when the lambs got bigger it was always one of them that went running back to Mamma with a peck on the nose.
After several months of fattening up the dreaded day dawned.
The lambs were penned up in the farmyard. Each one passed through a crush to be individually inspected and marked. The shepherd had two cans of spray dye. Blue, for another couple of weeks in the fields. Red, ready for the truck.
As I said frequently to Mike, what was to stop me going to the local farming supplies store and buying up a few more cans of blue? If we went out with a torch one night and over-sprayed every patch of red we could find, who would ever know?