I’ve surfaced from a surfeit of lambings. Zombie-like and mindless. Why?
It doesn’t seem to matter much if you have a large or small flock – for one reason or another it evokes the same reaction in the shepherd. I started off my shepherding with a dozen or so Longwools expanding to two hundred Mules and Mule-Suffolk crosses when I was dairying, back down to a medium flock of Herdwicks which I grazed over moorland on the North Devon coast and finally to my Whiteface Dartmoors here at Locks. Oh, and somewhere in there was a sprinkling of mad hysterical Shetlands that Robert gave me as a present one Easter – never again! Each breed has its good and bad points and it really depends what you’re after as to what breed you choose. The main thing is you like what you’ve got – that will help you tolerate multitudinous sins…
Sheep generally lamb together, it’s part of their flock survival strategy. So you are dealing with rapid-fire; that’s lots of births in quick succession, many of them multiple, and associated difficulties.
And then there’s temperament, theirs and yours. Sheep have tendency towards hysteria when they lamb whether there’s a problem or not; but if you’re dealing with a complication, and the ewe you’re helping suddenly decides she’s not dying and legs it across a muddy field, or uses the lambing shed as a race track, it can be difficult to keep one’s patience and cool.
And patience, calmness and time are definitely needed – to make sure all newborns have suckled and have a belly full of colostrum (first milk full of fats and antibodies): baby lambs are tiny and it’s imperative they suckle as soon as possible after birth. Once ewes have lambed and are penned, ewes and lambs are bonded, and lambs are sucking well …it’s maintenance time – water bucket, hay net, feed, bedding. At the same time you are dealing with all this you could have a handful of ewes in varying stages of labour. It’s trying to be everywhere at once that’s energy sapping.
Twelve to twenty-four hours after birth, all lambs (providing they are strong and healthy) need double-tagging in the ears, tail docking, and castrating if males; mothers need their feet trimming (they haven’t been done for the last three months of their gestation) and worming. When lambs have recovered from handling, tagging, docking and castrating they are numbered along with their mums for easy counting and identification in the field. Mine are transferred to an adjacent nursery field close to the house with access to shelter. Back in the lambing shed, the pens are mucked out and disinfected ready for the next occupant.
Every year due to tiredness or just lambing pandemonium there’s someone whose tail is forgotten, a tag wrongly recorded or a lamb who slips through as a female when he’s a male and should have been castrated. I have a note book in the shed which I translate onto the lambing sheet in the house – there are always mistakes in transcription, however hard I try!
And that, in a nutshell, explains the dazed, shell-shocked expression friends’ or acquaintances’ have when they say in a rather bemused fashion ‘Oh, I’ve been lambing’.