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the first 2010 set of twins

SBS, discombobulating knee or whatever…the show goes on. Nature waits for nothing; certainly no woman!

the first of twins born on Saturday

the first of twins born on Saturday

So in the cycle of things that are total certainties we began lambing on Saturday with calving hot on its heels. To say that I was dreadfully unsure as to how I’d manage this vital part of the farming calendar is an understatement – I’ve taken myself rather for granted over the years. But the human brain and body is nothing if not inventive. So with the stoic and long-suffering help of Olly and Robert there’s a new order emerging!

Lambing is not such a problem and can be approached sitting on the ground in a pair of thick waterproof trousers using a variety of interestingly contorted ‘yogic’ positions. Once the ewe and her brood are penned the same technique can be used for popping lambs onto the teat if the need arises – though Olly is proving a dab hand at this. Tagging, tailing and castrating? No probs – perch on the side of the pen/ask an Olly. Feet? An indispensible Olly is needed here as he is for post lambing drenching.

oh so sweet....

Calving is altogether a different kettle of fish, with absolutely no contorting-ground-sitting substitute sanctioned.

Last night our first calf was born – from a young first-calving heifer. Luckily there was no particular problem, she was just taking her time, so, I decided, she was an ideal candidate for ‘the boys’ to learn on.  Trying to explain how to attach calving ropes while standing outside the calving pen is one of the most difficult things I have ever done. It took every ounce of self-control not to vault the gates, get in there and show them!

You should have seen us! Me, with my face, hands and arms involuntarily mimicking vastly exaggerated actions of my explanations….‘That’s it, that’s it. Put your hand in…no, no right in, right in!’ (my arm snakes out) Yes that’s it…and feel, feel. Eyes shut, eyes shut! You can feel better.’ (my eyes squeeze tightly shut as my hand and fingers turn and feel the imaginary legs and head) ‘The second joint…you want to get the rope well over the second joint.’ (I slip the imaginary rope over the hoof and position it) ‘Don’t forget to check the head’s still lined up! (I twist my arm to feel over my holographic (I wish) head and second leg)  Yup, pull, gentle, gently’ and so on and so on.

Then there’s one rather shocked bloke trying to grab the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t-foot staring at me with bug-eyed concentration whilst the other bloke, equally mesmerised, holds desperately onto the heifer’s tail crooning, soothing and smoothing. It was quite the stuff of slapstick!

The heifer was extremely patient and tolerant with her learners seeing that this was the first time for her too, and in due course a beautiful heifer calf was born – bright, lusty and healthy.

first female calf born to heifer Lapis

We all went to bed happy and contented.

ahhhh.....

I haven’t dropped off the edge. I’m not shirking or dodging or avoiding. I’m not even suffering from virtual overload or writer’s block (in fact I’ve been itching to write). What I have been doing these last few weeks is getting ready; preparing.

This Wednesday I’m having my knee operated on – anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction – and I’ll be out of action…for some time…so they say. In my life there’s never, ever going to be a good time to be ‘legless’.

Over the last few weeks I’ve revelled, enjoyed, embraced, slogged, worn-out and appreciated the extraordinary aptitude and freedom (normally taken entirely for granted) my two legginess gives me. From the domesticity of making marmalade…

for the marmalade addict in our household...70 jars! (and I must be co-dependant)

…to the exhaustion of hedge laying;

Finished! the massive double hedge between Square Field and Out Across

in the summer we'll clean out the ditch and cast up the bank

from mucking out the cow palace…

cows in temporary accommodation during mucking out of the Cow Palace in preparation for calving

Cow Palace...clean, ready and waiting for the cows return

…and crutching the ewes prior to lambing to walking the dogs;

alert and ready

'Can you see a movement over there...?'

…driving the car (NO driving for SIX weeks!), handling the bobcat and the tractor…bringing in wood…gardening…doing housework…the cooking…going to work…! Even finding the first dump of frog spawn…

First frog spawn found 4th february

First frog spawn found 4th february

…and seeing pussy willow bursting its buds at the top of our lane..

Pussy willow peeping out...

I expect you’ll be hearing a lot from me in the coming weeks of my enforced incarceration!

Yesterday I started lambing – at 5.15am precisely!

new born ram lamb

new born ram lamb

The weather couldn’t have been better, gentle, mild and, most importantly, dry. Three ewes got on with the business almost simultaneously.

Last autumn I made the decision to sell a large proportion of my flock. My sheep were finding it harder and harder to manage on our land as a result of two unprecedented wet years.  If  summer was a problem, winter was going to be worse.

I kept back a nucleus of flock-aged ewes and a dozen ewe lambs just in case. You see my sheep, being a hill breed, are hefted, or leared, onto my land and are familiar with my system; if I go back into sheep farming it’s vital that years of flock knowledge isn’t lost.

Tail 2 lambing

Tail 1 lambing

One of the ewes I kept back was Dot, the wise old matriarch and also a pair of her two-tooth twins, known as the Tails – 1 and 2. I would like to say I kept their tails long so they could be easily identified, though in truth it was one of those lambing-exhaustion oversights. Still it’s been useful, as they weren’t sold and didn’t go for meat. I was hoping they had  inherited some of their mother’s exceptional genetic traits.

cleaning her newborn

cleaning her newborn

Tail 1 lambed today. She handled her labour skilfully and calmly, giving birth to the first of her twins standing up. Without hesitation she set about cleaning her baby, nickering and mumbling to her with total concertration and  tenderness; she manoeuvred herself  into an easy-udder-access position as soon as her lamb began to nuzzle search for the teat. Once her first newborn had sucked and was belly-full warm, she got on with giving birth to the second twin, taking just as much care  as well as maintaining contact and giving reassurance to the first. What a first lamber! The beginning of  ‘Dot’s Dynasty’ (yes, Tail 1’s twins are ewe lambs)!

finding the udder

finding the udder

I am hopelessly behind. I know I have a legitimate excuse but the things-that-must-be-done mound doesn’t get smaller – it just keeps growing!

The leaver is pulled, my head spins wildly like a fruit machine, then slows to a juddering stop. And the jackpot? Three Cherries? Three Lemons? Three Oranges?  No, and no spewing waterfall of bounty either.  My fruits are Mucking Out Cow Palace, Lambing Preparations,  Straw Delivery,  Soil Association Inspection or yet another TB Test.   (We are contiguous with infected herds, they say, and must now be tested every six months – but we have been contiguous, no, cirtiguous for ages, and this test will be right in the middle of calving…)

mucking out the cow palace

mucking out the cow palace

After landing three Straw Delivery fruits on Thursday, on Friday  I pulled the jackpot of Cow Palace Mucking Out .  So it was all hands on deck to get the job done and dusted by the afternoon, so cows could be returned to a sparkly clean and carpeted palace in time for imminent calving.

These are savvy cows. Instead of the usual thunderous explosion out of the cow palace, a decorous bunch of gigantic pregnant galleons swayed rhythmically down the lane. Memories of deep frozen wastes still fresh in their minds, they were not too sure if they wanted to spend another day banished to hostile lands without food or water. They need not have worried: temporary accommodation was available in Silage barn with all basic mod cons laid on.

Meanwhile back at the ranch all was a hive of activity and in record time we’d mucked out, hosed down, scraped and swept up, re-hung gates, bedded down and fed up.

making the muck heap

making the muck heap

On their return, no longer worried about possible banishment, they took time to take in and consider the state of the surrounding countryside, adjust their rather uncomfy corsets, pull  nonchalantly at hedgerow ferns or straying binds of ivy and discuss the merits of employing full-time staff 24/7 365 days a year.

After a cursory look at their gleaming accommodation and dragging a haughty hoof along the feed barrier to check for clinging grunge they got down to the all important task of eating, belching, breaking wind and dunging…just to give it back that lived-in appeal!

building sand castles?

building sand castles?

The next day my lucky strike was Lambing Shed preparations…

I love wearing grey: blending, cloaking, merging. Subtle, veiling, yet a window to life beneath. Both disguising and revealing. A foil for the complex colours of the soul.

Sultry, smudgy charcoal, wispy, misty smoke. Sharp-glint granite, feather-down nestle dove grey, iridescent mussel pearl. Gauzy-gossamer and ethereal ashes of roses. Addictively, I’m drawn to it. My wardrobe is full of shades of grey; I collect the colour in all its varying hues.

My comfort blanket, handed down from my great grandmother and miraculously free from moth damage, is made from the softest, snuggliest cashmere – a smoky charcoal one side and soft cloud the other. To wrap oneself in its comforting soothingness is pure bliss. And then there’s grey jumper.

I bought grey jumper about twenty years ago for no other reason than it was another grey jumper. Overlarge, a simple block square design, perfect to throw on over anything. It became a staple, not only to me but to the boys too…after a days surfing ‘throw us a jumper mum’; coming in from a cold wet windy day ‘where’s grey jumper?’. A hormonal downer, a rejection or some deep thought-thinking – you’d find them curled up in it. Walking, farming, gardening; holidaying, travelling, drifting…grey jumper would be found stuffed in some nook or cranny.

Over the years it’s often found itself in the pile of clothes to be given away, recycled or bundled to the charity shops only to be snatched back. And every year at the beginning of lambing and calving I find myself rooting around in the bottom of the cupboard. With a contented sigh I pull grey jumper out, slip the well-worn fabric over my head, ready to face whatever lies ahead, secure in my other skin.

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Everyday I check the ewes with eagle eye. Once over the frantic, hectic lambing and immediate post lambing days it’s very easy to rest on one’s laurels, sit back, enjoy the hilarious antics of growing lambs and the satisfying sight of the flock contentedly grazing.

One of my problems this year is too much milk…yes, too much milk! Supposedly due to last year’s wet summer I’ve had a higher than normal percentage of singles. A proportion of ewes that generally twin have given birth to single lambs and yet are still producing milk enough for two; resulting in engorged, painful udders until lamb, mum and milk sort themselves out – regulate. This can resolve itself naturally but not always, and if ignored could lead to mastitis. Mastitis in sheep is very serious, unlike mastitis in cows, and almost certainly results in the loss of the udder if not the ewe. An ‘udder’ (groan – sorry, just couldn’t help myself…) problem is orf. The stress of lambing can cause a break-out of orf pustules around the teat area (similar to reoccurring shingles in humans). It’s very painful and the ewe will prevent the lamb from sucking – and, you’ve got it…inflamed udder, damaged teat and possible mastitis if not detected and treated.

Today at  feeding time I noticed a young feisty ewe with a very lopsided udder. Unfortunately the sheep were thinning out around the troughs (the easiest time to catch them is when they’re in a feeding frenzy) and she saw me coming. After several abortive attempts at trying to catch her I was about to give up when I thought I would try out some sheep whispering.

Crouching, I approached her and her lamb slowly, very, very slowly with my arms outspread. Looking her directly in the eye, I mumbled soft sounds whilst gradually moving forward. My mind was totally focused. Edging closer and closer I saw her fear and anxiety reached fever pitch then gradually subside; her breathing steadied. I was inches from her. I made no attempt to catch her. I waited just a second or so; she took a steady step towards me, looking unswervingly into my eyes she put her head forward to snuffle my hand. For a moment we were frozen together – a tableaux. She allowed me to put my arm around her chest, start the milk flowing from her swollen udder and encourage her lamb to suck.

It was over in minutes. One trance-like udder-relieved ewe and her lamb rejoined the flock and one happily flabbergasted shepherd walked the half mile back home – grinning.

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continuity…joining the dots, dot’s little dot
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In the glow of the setting sun on Monday evening Dot gave birth to twins. The last lambs of 2008 to be born. Dot is my oldest sheep (to find out more about her click on Sheep Secrets) and quite a character – even Robert has a soft spot for her and he has no time whatsoever for sheep. I was hoping to keep her away from the tups last autumn, but Dot had other ideas. I kept my fingers crossed that at least she would spare herself and have a single – but no, in true Dot style, she was in lamb to twins…yet again.

Old productive ewes carrying twins can run into problems during the later part of the pregnancy. Pregnancy toxaemia can develop as the fast growing lambs take more energy than the ewe can take in. If the signs are not seen early on the ewe can become so depleted she’ll stop eating all together; having reached this point it becomes very difficult to pull her back to recovery.

Over the last month I’ve watched Dot with an eagle eye and as soon as I saw her interested in food was waning I took measures to make sure she had access to an easy unchallenged measure of oats and molasses. Soon she was back to her old self, bright and lively, though still thin.

Dot gave birth on Monday evening with the minimum of fuss and bother. But she wasn’t out of the woods quite yet. With the unborn lambs having used up all her resources and her labour having sapped every last ounce of energy, she had nothing left to make milk with. It’s a fine line allowing the lambs to suckle to encourage milk supply and teaching them to suck a bottle to substitute the ewe’s milk. But with patience one eventually gets the balance right.

Old ewes can crash after the stress of giving birth, and Dot did. The immediate need for energy and the changing hormones can cause digestive upsets and prohibit the liver from working properly. So it’s careful nursing and feeding, letting the ewe have access to ivy and certain plants that will help her rebalance her metabolism. I gave her a multi-vitamin jab as B vitamins help kick start the liver.

We’re there! Today Dot is nearly back to normal and has begun grazing, making some milk and eating a small quantity of whole oats. Her lambs are bonny and bouncy and joy of joy the little ewe lamb is a replica of her mum – a mini Dot!

So here’s to Dot’s last lambs…and a peaceful retirement!

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Locks Park Farm

Thanks for visiting my blog. All entries are presented in chronological order.

I have a small organic farm on the Culm grasslands near Hatherleigh in Devon, with sheep and beef cattle. I've been farming in the county for more than 30 years. I've set up this blog to share views on farming and the countryside - please do give your thoughts.

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