Monday, 29 March 2010

Horn Burning (branding)

Most of the hill sheep in Tarset are of the horned variety. Both breeds of Black faced and Swaledale sheep grow horns. When born the sheep have small horn buds on their heads, on the female (ewe lambs) these buds are hardly visible whereas the tup (male) lambs have quite strong and noticeable horn buds. As the sheep mature the horns grow.

Once deemed strong enough hot irons are applied to the sheeps horn, one horn carries a number showing the age of the sheep and the opposite horn (occasionally the same horn) carries some sort of lettering.

The ewe hoggs(older lambs) are horn burnt once their horns have shot (grown) sufficiently, although there are a few farmers who prefer to wait until they are gimmers (year old), being slightly older the horn has basically matured and is stronger.

By burning the horns there is a permanent mark on the sheep. Any lettering put onto a horn will be to show who the owner of the sheep is. This can vary, there may be initials to name the owner of the sheep and the farm they belong, for example Farmer Smith of Farmstead may well burn SF onto his sheeps horns. Some may just put the farmers initial on or even the farm name. NE in Tarset stands for Northumberland Estates burnt onto sheep belonging to the Duke of Northumberland.

A fire has to be stoked and irons heated
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The sheeps horn is hung over a rail in the pens to keep it stable whilst the horn burning iron is applied to the horn, the handle of the iron is usually hot, when farmers always wore caps the cap used to be wrapped around the handle to protect the hand, with fewer farmers wearing caps these days an old rag is usually used
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A hot iron will burn a few horns before it needs to be placed back in the fire, there are usually two of each (numbers and letters) in the fire at once ensuring you don't have to wait for them to re heat. Burning is not painful to the sheep, it is along similar lines to hot shoeing horses and is most probably more uncomfortable for the person holding the sheep who either has to hold their breath or in hale the smoke. Care has to be taken by the person using the iron that it doesn't slip off the horn and burn the person holding the sheep. I've only once been burnt by an iron and that was when I decided to teach a farmers son how to do the job, I carried the number six around on my hand for quite a while!
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The number burnt onto the horn will enable the farmer/shepherd to see at a glance what age the sheep is. This hogg would be burnt in March 2006, it would be born in 2005 hence a number 5 on the horn
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I always used to burn the numbers in an opposite fashion. The number put onto the horn would correspond with the year they were due to bwe drafted out of the flock. This hogg, born in 2005 would have had a number one burnt onto the horn which would have meant she would be six year old and drafted out of the flock in 2011. Everyone has different methods.

Once burnt the hoggs are ready to be returned to the hill. Back out to their mothers. Giving the fields they've been wintering in a chance to freshen up before the ewes are brought in to lamb. This also gives the hoggs a chance to settle on the hill with the main flock, for them to remember where they are meant to live before the ewes leave them to come into the fields to be lambed.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Pre lambing innoculating

I've covered the copper inoculation which some, but not all, sheep require, and explained how it was a preventative medicine.

Ewes require another inoculation from 6 weeks prior to them lambing and again this is a preventative form of treatment.

Clostridial diseases with weird names such as Braxy, Blackleg, Lamb Dysentry, Pulpy kidney can cause a great deal of grief in the flock and expensive losses to the farmer. Just as we have our tetanus injections to save us suffering from Lock Jaw (tetanus), sheep also require boosters to prevent them from falling foul to some horrible infection/disease. This is not a live vaccine and so does not require a vets prescription, it is readily available over the counter at any agricultural merchants.

The ewe hoggs (female lambs) which are kept to introduce into the flock are inoculated in the autumn. They require doing twice, six weeks apart, to get them into the system. As would any adult sheep which have never previously been vaccinated.

Once in the 'system' the sheep find themselves getting their annual booster from 6 weeks prior to lambing. It is administered by automatic syringe (in the same way as the copper is) and as the label says - subcutaneously - which to us normal folks means under the skin (which is a darn sight easier to spell).

My preferred spot for jagging (injecting) under the skin is just behind the shoulder, the skin is loose here and a light tug on the wool will easily pull the skin up and allow you to stick the needle under the skin. Sometimes if the ewe bends her body the wrong way this will tighten the skin, however it loosens the skin even further on the other side so I just change sides - easy!

The recommended site is on the neck, should a reaction occur due to the injection there will be less damage to the carcase if it was to be slaughtered, however, these ewes aren't going for slaughter and it is very rare I see signs of damage when shearing the sheep.

When inoculated prior to lambing the vaccine finds itself getting passed into the foetus inside the ewe, therefore giving the lamb a few weeks cover from these horrible illnesses once it is born. There's nothing like giving them a good start in life.

There are a number of products on the market, all covering similar ailments, some that cover more than others. My prefered vaccine is the one which also covers pneumonia. There were actually a couple farms in the area a few years back which had to change the vaccine they were using as their flocks were getting bothered with pneumonia, this was an expense at the time as the whole flock had to have the double injection to get them into the 'system', in the long run though it was cheaper than losing and treating sheep for pneumonia.

Lamb Dysentry tends to be prevailant in the Scottish Borders and Northumberland and the vaccine which is absorbed by the foetus has been a life saver to many lambs. Lamb dysentry was something which I had never seen until a couple of years back, due to all flocks being innoculated for the duration of my shepherding life I had never had cause to come across it. When I did it nearly broke my heart.

I took a fresh lambing ( one which I still do to this day), these sheep were organic. Basically the ideal of organic farming is that treatments ought to be witheld unless it can be proven they are necessary. Preventative medicines are shunned upon, wait until the problem arises - if it does - then do something about it.

That was the case with my first lambing on this organic farm. None of the ewes were vaccinated and I came across a problem in the lambs which was fresh to me. It varied and it struck the lambs down quickly. You could go around in the morning and everything appeared fine, later in the day there may be a lamb lying dead, or worse.

Lambs could be anything from a few days old to a few weeks. The ones found dead were the lucky ones. Anything found ill was in agony. Some showed signs of scour (diarrohea) others didn't. They all showed signs of tummy ache. There are probiotics and rehydration therapies which can be admministered and this was the route I took, I soon concluded I was prolonging the agony.

I did finally reach a breaking point. One lamb which I actually knew well - it's mother was a kind gimmer (first lamber) who had nurtured her lamb for the few days it had been alive - was found one day in a crumpled heap. Lamb and mother were fetched off the hill and put into a pen. Tummy ache was obvious and medicines (organic) were administered. The lamb appeared to improve, it got onto it's feet, stretched, but not the normal stretch - a tummy ache stretch. A painful bleat was uttered, scour ran out of it which showed blood, it then lay down and thrashed around, froth coming from it's mouth before it stood again and went through the whole process again. Perseverance from my part failed.

I have to say, I have never seen lambs suffer so much pain. Eventually carcases were sent to the vets. Again, with organic farming it is necessary for the vet to make the call, it is out of the shepherds hands until the vet has given his prognosis and confirmed what you thought or knew. I didn't know this was Lamb Dysentry as I had never experienced it before but the shepherd I was working under had his doubts and felt fairly sure this was the problem.

The tests were inconclusive and I had to wait for another carcase. To cut a long story short any others I found I put out of thier misery, didn't attempt to cure. It was eventually confirmed and the following year all the sheep had been vaccinated and 'touch wood' I have never come across the problem since and don't want to.

The whole episode made me question the ideals of organic farming. There is no doubt in my mind that this clostridial vaccine is a necessary treatment for the flock, at a cost of approx 70p per sheep it is money well spent.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Twin lamb disease update

You may remember I mentioned sheep being 'off' one Sunday. My instinct told me it would be twin lamb disease, my optimism remained as I felt I had noticed this problem quickly and hoped it could possibly be resolved.

Unfortunately nature resolved the problem. All efforts failed and the two ewes died.

For all you get hardened to death, it still frustrates you. Days were spent treating these ewes. One went down quickly the other was up and down like a yo - yo, until finally, she too succumbed. You feel as though you've failed, even though you knew the outcome was unlikely to be a good one.

There is absolutely no point in dwelling on the matter, there are many live ones and it is important to maintain their health and well being.

I do however feel that I may have learnt something. Discussing the subject with another shepherd I learnt a different twist on the logic of twin lamb disease.

As explained in a past posting, something triggers the ewe to call upon her own bodily reserves in an effort to 'feed' the lamb or lambs growing inside her, unfortunately this causes problems with her metabolism, a form of poisoning kicks in and invariably they die.

I was truly frustrated as these sheep had been well looked after, they were in good physical fettle prior to going 'off' and ought not to have had an excuse to succumb to this disease.

The shepherd I was talking with was quite adamant that in his mind twin lamb disease was a greater risk to fit (fat) sheep as opposed to lean (thin) sheep. His logic being that a fat sheep HAD reserves to fall back on when needed whereas a thin sheep didn't have the body fats to call upon when necessary. Therefore a thin sheep couldn't go on the downward spiral of draining her reserves as she had no reserves to drain.

My logic has added that if that is the case she'd probably naturally abort or lamb down a very weakly lamb which would most probably die either from being weak or from the fact the ewe would also probably not have sufficient milk to feed it. Again natures way. The result would be that the ewe would live to see another year. For all she was so lean and had no bodily condition once she was rid of the lamb which she couldn't rear anyhow she would then be able to build up her body and thrive and ultimately survive!

I have no idea whether this is fact or fiction but it does sound logical. I know of two neighbours with ewes waiting for the dead cart, both have been fed well and both have had twin lamb disease. Does make you wonder - but then none of us would be happy to see the ewes lean and unable to rear their lambs, we'll just have to put up with the odd ewe going down with twin lamb disease.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

The Virgin Birth?

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Lambs are appearing in Tarset, although many are not meant to be. I have to laugh every time I hear "Way! I don't know how that happened!" I mentioned in a posting in the back end about the ewes coming a raid. Ewes and tups get randy as the days darken but the shepherd has a set date for allowing them both together.

Sheep ain't that stupid and for some the temptation to realise their desires is so great that no fence or stone wall is going to stop them. Five months on and these rendezvous become apparent. There are some in the area who had lambs arrive in the middle of March, a month before the lambing date. An escaped tup can do an awful lot of damage in one night. Fortunately all seem to have managed to survive their misdemeanours and for all they have produced early they are rearing their lambs.

Only a week away before the earlier lambings begin in the area and 3 - 4 weeks before the hill ewes begin and still there is no grass. It has freshened up slightly, some wet days and a slightly warmer air has made the brown, barren fields appear slightly greener but the grass is still struggling to grow, it is so badly needed. I am hugely optimistic that a few warm days are on their way and the results of which will soon be there to be seen.

As for Shep, well one week left before I head away. The 1st April sees me heading into Scotland. The first fortnight I don't rightly look forward to. I will be doing a night lambing. The farm I lamb on has a small flock of 'field' Cheviots, ewes drafted in off the hill with one or two younger ages in amongst them for good measure. These ewes find themselves housed at night and it is Shep's responsibility to ensure their well being. My shift runs from 10pm to 10am. My sanity is saved by going to the hill every morning and feeding the hill ewes which will be lambing down a fortnight after the field ewes start.

When the hill lambing comes in I will be in my element.

I have a cottage to bide in whilst over the border, self catering affair with only a radio for company, but warm and fairly comfortable. Today has seen me buying provisions. A necessity to deal with 'business' things down in town gave me the opportunity to gather the necessities for living away for a while. My priorities seem unusual, or so I thought as I scoured shelves in shops to find the best deal on chocolate......... only one sort will do, good ol' dairy milk of a breed which has just been sold out to an American company. I did find a good deal and was laiden down with the stuff. I also had to reach the offices of our local weekly paper and take out a six week subscription - Fridays just aren't the same without the local rag to read!

Then there were cans of a caffeine based drink to keep me awake (all it will actually do is make me shake and will only be used in a dire emergency), as Shep is intending to be travelling home for the first 10 days to keep an eye on the sheep who's owner is still recovering from being trampled by them before Christmas. I really will be looking forward to settling into my little cottage and concentrating on the hill lambing!

My shopping spree found me laden with all that was necessary, I had a list. A trip to the agricultural merchants saw me trotting out with enough food to sink the dogs, gear I would require for the lambing, a fresh whistle in case I lose or swallow the one I've got, stomach tube, marker crayons (don't like those spray cans), hand wash (for the rare occasion), porridge.

Thought I had it all but in actual fact forgot the real necessities, y'know things like toilet rolls, toothpaste, washing up liquid......... But not to worry I've got the chocolate!

Monday, 22 March 2010

Dyking - 'dry stone walling'

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Tarset has miles of stone walls, they would be introduced when the enclosure acts came in. Built with stones hewn from local out crops of stone or out of the rivers/burns and probably lead to the spot by horse and cart. The stones would be dressed - squared up with hammers and chisels - as the wall was built. Unfortunately, what goes up can also come down as the above picture shows.

So, there's been a couple of wet days when Shep wasn't able to get on with sheep work and a spot of dyking has been done. Dykes in this area are dry stone walls, down south I found out they are ditches and there will undoubtably be various other meanings to the word. All shepherds would turn their hand to dyking, a trade handed down or learnt from others on the farm. Less staff on the farms these days often means proffesional dry stone wallers are called in to rebuild the walls which have come down.

The walls are a very important structure, not only providing boundaries to a field they provide shelter for the stock held in that field. A wire fence lets the wind through, a stone wall doesn't. Today, as the weather worsened I ducked down on the lee side of the wall and felt I was in a different world, the driving rain abatted and life felt far more comfortable, unfortunately I eventually had to stand up and resume my task, to find the weather hadn't subsided at all.
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Walls are built with the biggest stones at the bottom, with the stones hopefully getting smaller towards the top of the wall. Common sense would tell you not to put the big heavy beasts at the top of the wall as this weight will encourage the wall to come down. The wall is tapered in with each layer of stone meaning it will be wider at the bottom than the top. Each layer of stone must overlap the existing layer, to help tie them in. It is a sin to have two stones on top of each other with the join not overlapped.

The wall is held up with back fill, small pieces of stone placed in the hollow centre of the wall, these are also used to 'pin' the stones to prevent them from moving. A dry stone wall can not be built succesfully without back fill.
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Thruffs, throughs or binders are names for the big binding stones put into the wall, these are large flat stones which cover the whole width of the wall, often protruding out on both sides (you may have used these to stand on whilst climbing a wall), these thruffs are put in a third of the way up and then lighter ones a third of the way up again with the final layer of stone being the capes (coping stones) again placed across the width of the wall as a final binder. The above photo shows the thruffs protruding and the capes on the top.

Walls fall down for various reasons. Trees which have grown near a wall will rock in the wind, their roots running under the walls will cause the wall itself to move until one day it is all too much and the wall tumbles down. Cattle can be hard on walls, enjoying a good scratch on the thruffs protruding out of the wall which can dislodge them. Horses stretch their long necks over the wall and the weight of their chests push the wall over. Then there is the frost, it causes stones to move and can eventually cause everything to tumble down, the weight of snow can also bring them down. Traffic causing vibration as it passes by can eventually cause problems. Sheep can learn to jump a wall and then there are problems!!! The first photo of a gap is ideal for a sheep to pop over, hoping the grass is greener on the other side, if they are allowed to do this too frequently they will soon learn to jump higher bits of wall and before long you have a huge problem.

Climbing walls is not ideal, we've all done it. It pays to look closely, find a stretch of wall that looks really sound before climbing over and should you dislodge any stones replace them immeadiately. Ideally try walking a bit further and finding the gate, especially if you want to remain friends with the farmer.

Cars running off the road knock down quite a few stretches of wall and it is hugely frustrating to the farmer if they are not notified of this as stock can easily escape and also the car driver is insured and stone walling isn't cheap if you need to call someone in to build it for you.

There is more to the humble wall than first meets the eye, watch this space.......

Busy life

Shep has been busy. The run up to lambing time sees many jobs to be done. I often wish I earned a pound for every sheep I handled!

The past few weeks have been filled with dosing for internal parasites. Pre lambing innoculating. Chiropady for any lame sheep whilst they're in the pens for the last time before they lamb. Horn burning of hoggs before they head back out onto the hill ground. Some sheep to ear tag to keep them up to date with government regualtions. Treating external parasites with pour on medicines. Moor burning. Stone walling. Feeding sheep. Battling with twin lamb disease and losing. Socialising......... Life has been hectic.

There is almost a feeling of panic setting in, time is ticking on. Shep will soon be leaving Tarset and heading for pastures new as lambing time nears. I head off into Scotland and get my Cheviot fix. A white faced breed of hill sheep the Cheviot has found a way into my heart. I look forward to heading off and lambing these Cheviots, unfortunately prior to heading off life always gets hectic, there is much to do, family to visit, provisions to buy and work to do, the days often seem too short with not enough hours in the day and not enough days in the week to get everything done before I head away. Once away it takes a couple of days to un wind and get into routine and then I have a ball. One job to concentrate on for the duration - chill time! (A little bit of poetic licence there I doubt, this is lambing time after all!!)

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Spring is in the air

At long last. We have been waiting patiently for the signs of spring. The peewits (lapwings) and skylarks turned up at the beginning of March. Other visitors were still eagerly awaited and they've finally arrived.
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The curlew - it's back! I have to admit to having heard it on numerous occasions, very often just wishful thinking or else I've noticed starlings near at hand and they are grand mimickers of sounds.

The 15th March was the day. I not only heard, but also saw, the curlew - no doubt about it, not my mind playing games or anything else for that matter, I even had a witness to the event. Apparently the golden plovers are also back. At long last it seems we have pulled through the winter months, our ground nesting birds have returned from their winters holiday over at the coast. It is good to see and hear them again.

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The frogs are gathering up and croakingly crooning to one another. The frosts have given over for the time being. The wind is from a warmer art (direction), although quite strong with it. The days are truly lengthening, (light at 6am now). All we need now is for the grass to return, for those with short memories that is the green stuff which usually grows in the countryside (and gardens for that matter), it has been missing from view for far too long, it's return is long overdue, optimism is running high that it may well return before the lambing gets going - lets hope so.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Twin Lamb Disease

Not a disease as such at all, the posh name being Pregnancy Toxeamia. Often linked with ewes carrying multiple births, but not always the case.

As ewes get heavier in lamb the lambs inside them ask more of their mothers. The lambs are growing and require more sustenance from their mothers, the ewes then use more of their built up reserves and this is when the problem may arise.

The reserves that the ewe has built up in her body are stored as fat or take the form of sugar and glycogen throughout the liver and muscles of the body. If she uses up the sugar reserves this will cause her blood sugar levels to drop, she will then call upon her fat reserves in an attempt to raise the blood sugar levels, unfortunately as the fats are broken down by the liver ketones are formed. Excessive ketones end up poisoning the system eventually producing an effect similar to alcohol abuse in humans.

Well managed feeding of the sheep ought to help keep twin lamb disease at bay, however, there are always the odd ones which may well succumb. The ewe just needs to have an 'off' day, not eat as well as usual, and the body will automatically begin to draw upon its own reserves and try to make up the deficit. Almost any form of stress, be it the weather, a day through the sheep pens or even a change in feed could well be enough to trigger twin lamb disease in a ewe.

I have always found two symptoms which draw me direct to the conclusion of twin lamb disease. Blindness and sweet breath.

The blindness does not affect the appearance of the eye (unlike snow blindness)but you'll find if you wave your hand past the eye or move your finger towards the eye there will be no reaction shown, the ewe ought to at least blink - but she wont.

As for the breath - it has a definite sweet odour about it which I believe arises from the ketosis. The next time you see a shepherd seeming to wave at a sheep then smell it's breath they haven't lost their marbles, they are diagnosing.

The sheep I had the pleasure of finding 'off' the other morning were showing some of these signs, fortunately for them they were still mobile and with the rest of the flock, however a built in sense of 'something not right' came to the fore.

The early signs may have a ewe lying off from the flock, or not coming in to the cake. These particular sheep were on ad lib blocks, it is always possible that some ewes were not eating the blocks or maybes were getting pushed out by greedier sheep. One ewe was lying behind the wall, looking as though she was sheltering and did rise and join the rest of the flock with encouragement but there was no doubt about it that something was wrong. The other was still with the main flock but something about her demeanour made alarm bells ring in my head. Interestingly enough we had had a hard frost the previous morning followed by a strong cold relentless wind all day - could it be possible this was sufficient stress to cause these ewes to call upon their own bodily reserves? Who knows.

In both cases the ewes appeared to be blind and one most definitely had a sweetness about its breath. A home made glucose drench was administered with an injection of calcium and magnesium also given. Calcium and magnesium deficiencies cause lambing sickness and staggers, a poorly sheep can easily succumb to this and it never does any harm to cover the possibilities.

Unfortunately it is difficult to pull a ewe back from full blown twin lamb disease. The success rate is only a few percent. She will be off her feet, off her food and reliant on you to keep her re hydrated and trying to raise her sugar levels whilst the poison of the ketones gets to work on the rest of her body. The best chance of survival is to get rid of the cause - that being the lambs inside her.

Now women can suffer from the same problem. They will find themselves in hospital, closely monitored, drip fed to keep glucose levels up. Once the condition of the expectant mother is stabilised she will probably be given a ceasarian section with the premature baby heading for an incubator in the special baby unit. A hugely worrying and dangerous time for all involved.

The ewe is less fortunate. It is often hoped that they will keb (abort), the ewes last resort to saving her life, one which may happen naturally or injections from the vet can be administered, however, these don't always work. Which ever scenario it is highly unlikely the lambs will survive unless they are close to being full term. As for a ceasarian? Yes it is an option available but one which is rarely considered. Should the lambs inside her already be dead (which is highly probable if she has been sick for a while) the chance of subsequent infection and death of the ewe is high. A great risk when the cost of a ceasarian will be well above the value of a normal hill sheep. Unfortunately there is not a national health service for sheep which means weighing up the pros and cons before heading for major surgery on an animal valued at less than the cost of the treatment, especially if the outcome has a high probability of being unsuccessful.

Should the ewe not be able to be rid of her lambs life looks bleak for her indeed and after a duration it is always kinder to put her out of her misery. Put her down. Which is never easy as you always remain optimistic, keep treating the condition in the hope she may cast her lambs and rally, you have spent days nurturing the beast, hoping and praying that she will show some signs of rallying but there comes a time when realisation dawns and you know you have to do the right thing, let her leave this world peacefully, call the dead cart and pay £14.25 for the privilege.

There have been many reports of incidences of twin lamb disease, the weather has got to be a contributing factor, fields bare as a board - there is no substitute for the real thing, sheep are meant to eat grass and this year so far there is none. Those already lambing away further inbye are reporting problems due to there being nothing in the fields to turn the ewes out on to, these being fields that haven't been grazed for quite some time, fields that ought to be freshening up, growing grass and giving the ewes a boost as they are set out into them. The weather is due to warm up this week according to the forecast, hopefully this ought to set the grass on growing and give the sheep a sporting chance of remaining healthy.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Another Sunday off

Farmers and shepherds alike get days off but they usually have to do some work before the rest of the day is theirs. Stock to feed or look before getting changed into better clothes and heading away for the day, often to return and change back into the work wear to check or feed stock again before darkening.

Some can be more fortunate and have someone to cover for them. Shepherds employed on a farm may find another member of staff or the farmer himself will cover for them and vice versa. Less staff on farms means many aren't so lucky and a complete day off from rising to going back to bed is unheard of, even if there are just the dogs to see to there will always be something needs tending on the day off.

Shep is more fortunate due to the nature of my work. Self employed Contract Shepherd. I get my days off when no one requires my assistance or such as this Sunday when I had a christening to attend.

My second Sunday off on the trot saw me feeding some sheep in the morning (I treat this as a day off, a quieter pace of life to a 'normal' day)to find all was not well . A great start to the day! There were two or three sheep in the field that were acting peculiarly and I had a christening to attend......

The clock was ticking, bath and clean clothes were required so the sheep were left for now and off to the christening we went. The better half sick to the back teeth of me wittering away in the car discussing the possible problems these sheep may be suffering from.

Hexham Abbey was the venue, if any one has never been inside the Abbey it is well worth a visit, a magnificent building which always brings back memories of my childhood and being taken down the crypt by a friend of my Grandfathers,an elderly, bent gentleman whom at the time I believed lived down there - made it all the more spooky!!

The christening was in all fairness a stressful affair, not how they are meant to be really but family politics and grief lying below the surface caused it to be, which brought to the fore Shep's aptitude for saying and doing silly things (a failing I have, but an endearing one at that - I think!), which brings me on to the christening lunch......

Shep headed straight for the bar at the venue, to be greeted like a long lost friend by a man " well hello there, how ya keepin'?"
"Grand thanks, and yourself?"
"Aye, Champion"

Totally clueless as to who this fella was I enquired whether he'd been at the service "No. I can't sit down"
"I beg your pardon?"
" Can't sit down. No good going over there and those hard pews, can't sit down"

Now the guy seemed perfectly healthy to me, his legs appeared to bend and I couldn't see any obvious reason as to why he couldn't sit down. I've heard many excuses over the years for not attending church but this was a fresh one on me. My inquisitive nature along with a relief that someone had greeted me as a long lost friend and broken the ice on this difficult occasion made me enquire as to why he was unable to sit down.

"Cement burn" was the reply
"A what?" I enquired
"Cement burn on me arse"

Now as is oft the case, Shep does not always engage the brain before the mouth and this was one such case "Can I have a look? I've never seen a cement burn before"
"Are you sure"
"What? that I've never seen a cement burn or that I want to look at your arse?"

Jeans and boxers were dropped and Shep saw her first cement burn - I never want one of those, poor soul, I fully understand why he couldn't sit down. The better half by this time was shaking his head and waiting for a hole to open and swallow me up.

My new found friend then enquired if I'd like to rub some cream on, when deep heat rub was offered he duly pulled his kegs (trousers) back up.

A roofer by trade, he had been sitting on a ridge which had been cemented the previous day and seemingly not set properly, the discomfort in his backside and upper thigh he put down to the position he was in for hours, until that was, the following morning when the pain was intense and it was realised he'd suffered a major burn to his posterior. The things you learn in life!

Anyhow, an excuse to leave the christening do was that we needed to get back and see to poorly sheep, plus my mother needed her mothers day card which we had only just managed to buy en route to the christening. I gave her a bunch of flowers too, an imaginary bunch, which I made her smell and guess what colour they were - I'm sure she was flattered!!

On the way home the better half enquired as to who my friend was in the bar,
"Y'know the one who dropped his trousers".
"No idea, never met the guy before"
It was then it dawned on me just how ludicrous the whole scenario had been.... but interesting all the same!!

Back home, changed into the smelly everyday clothes and off to look at sheep. My first conclusion which I drew on first seeing them in the morning was still my favourite prognosis and not one which I liked. Twin lamb disease. On a positive note it had to be mild twin lamb disease so there was hope and still is.

The sheep which were acting peculiarly this morning were no worse, a good sign, they were also no better (which would have been highly unlikely). It is disapointing as these sheep have been fed like fighting cocks, albeit with access to high energy licks and hay. I conclude that as they are now just a fortnight off lambing this is not sufficient for them and so they will be going onto 18% sheep cake with added glucose immeadiately, thanks to the kindness of a neighbour who has lent some bags until a delivery is made.

The ewes are in good physical fettle and really ought not to be going down with twin lamb disease, however the prolonged hard weather has meant sheep have been fed for a longer duration than usual and so are now maybe finding that when the drag of bearing lambs is really hitting them that boost in feeding is not there, as they have been fed since being very light in lamb, whereas feed would normally have only been introduced to them more recently and would have given them a lift as the lambs began to be a drain on their mothers bodies.

All being well these sheep may well be lucky. If my prognosis is correct then the outcome could well be poor, except (and I am thinking positively here) this problem has been noticed very early with what I suspect to be a mild form of the 'disease', as the better half said - he wouldn't have picked up on it yet ( he is a tractor driver with a strong dislike of sheep). It boils down to knowing the sheep and catching 'odd' behaviour quickly - hopefully luck will be on their side.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Scannings - the results

Hill scannings finally over, so how did they go?

I think it would be fair to say they went better than expected.

The wintry weather arrived in Tarset whilst the tups were still running with the ewes, albeit nearing the end of their stint. The weather continued for many weeks and many were beginning to worry about the results of the scannings.

When ewes find themselves under physical stress they are apt to cast their lambs, abort or as we would call it - keb. However, they are also capable of reabsorbing their lambs, often showing no signs of anything un toward. For all we were saying the worst of the weather had come when the sheep were early in lamb the stress they had found themselves in made one wonder if they would possibly be able to hold onto their lambs.

The scanning results have shown that indeed they did manage to keep a hold of their lambs. The twin numbers are down and the geld (empty) numbers on some farms are up, however both of these figures are mainly insignificant in that there is a slight variation but not a severe difference on past scanning results.

The shepherd out -bye was well chuffed with his results as the geld numbers were well down. The twin count was slightly lower but that is no great hardship. Twins on hill farms take a lot more looking after and better in-bye ground is needed to give them a good start in life. Many hill farms don't have high acreages of good in-bye ground and so if a phenomenal number of twins were to be born it would be a problem as you would be left with too many mid or bottom end lambs to sell in the autumn.

Many of the twin lambs on a hill farm find themselves split. When a single is born dead, or for whatever reason dies, a twin will be lifted off it's mother and set on to the ewe which has lost hers, this ensures two single lambs both well reared with the result of a good strong healthy lamb in the back end.

So basically, there are less twin lambs expected this spring with a handful more ewes getting the year off and running without a lamb. Some of these ewes may not have the privilege of seeing the spring. Any geld (empty) ewes which were to be drafted out of the flock this coming back end may well have found themselves down to the 'pie shop' already. Grass is none existent at the moment and sheep trade is good, what is the point of keeping and feeding a sheep which would be being sold in the autumn anyhow but isn't going to rear a lamb?

May sound harsh but these sheep help pay the feeding costs of those ewes which are carrying lambs. Everywhere at the moment is totally barren. Field ground is so bare you could see a mouse run over it, apparently this isn't just here in this area but further south too.

The hard weather we have experienced for months now is preventing any growth of grass. Frosts practically every morning are knocking back any grass which thinks it might like to grow. Sheep are needing TLC (tender loving care), feed blocks for the singles out on the hill ground which although a lot rougher than fields it is still as dead as a Do Do, usually at this time of the year the hill sheep get nourishment from the moss but with the hard frosty weather the moss is frozen too and so they are not able to graze it.

So the hill singles are receiving supplementary feed in the form of blocks whilst the twins will have been brought into fields (or be waiting to be brought into fields) and they will be receiving sheep cake, a pelleted form of fodder which can come in bags (25kg) or blown into buildings loose. There is a variety of cake available on the market, some start their ewes on 16% protein feed raising them to a higher protein closer to lambing.

A winter like this one shows what an important management tool the pregnancy scanning can be, enabling the farmers and shepherds to work out who needs what, feed wise, as you wouldn't want to stuff a lot of feed into your singles and find the lambs grow too big to come out. If the twins were fed as though they were carrying singles then they may struggle to rear them especially on a year like this when the spring is so slow in thinking about arriving.

Feed costs have been high this winter, feeding starting earlier than usual with sheep needing what they are given, and for all the efforts of the farmers and shepherds there are problems already beginning to show with the odd keb (abortion)and one or two ewes going down with twin lamb disease (Pregnancy Toxeamia). We are getting closer to the lambing starting, lambs will be around by the start of April with the hill ewes coming in in the middle of the month and all efforts are being made to ensure the ewes will be fit enough to lamb down and nurse their lambs. Some warmer weather would be welcomed as that ought to encourage the grass to grow and the sheep will be happier as will those who care for them.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

A Sunday off

The first day off in the past eleven - exciting stuff!! A lie in was the order of the day. Now a tap, tap, taptap, tapping noise was aggravating Shep from 7am onwards, of an origin that my brain could not work out. Eventually I succumbed and got my lazy backside out of bed. The better half informs me it is Jackdaws nesting on the side of the house, in amongst the tangle of electric and phone lines which come in to the premises. Seemingly it's been annoying him lately too. As I have been up and away from home before this 'late' hour of the morning I have been totally unaware of the tapping problem. I doubt the gun will be coming out of it's secure home in the gun cabinet.

I suppose I did manage to have a lie in of sorts and rose totally mentally alert having lain in bed for quite a while concentrating on the tapping noise and trying to work out what on earth it could be. Whether the dogs appreciated a lie in I don't rightly know, they came out of the kennel with a bounce, well, one of them did - the youngster (Moss), the older dog (Glen) is still off the stot, I can't quite work out what the problem is other than concluding it is age and cold weather. There is nothing specific you can point your finger at but I shall continue with the vets medication and see how he goes.

A leisurely bowl of porridge, one or two 'phone calls, some dishes to wash, washing to hang out then off to inoculate a handful of ewes for an elderly 'farmer' in the area. The same elderly person who was involved in an STA (sheep trampling accident) prior to Christmas. The ewes are in good fettle and seemed to enjoy trying to break my legs whilst treating them - they truly are a strange band, many brought up as pets and most with an attitude all of their own.

The job took quite a while due to my automatic syringe drawing air which resulted in having to use a single shot syringe. Also, half way through, the sheep which had already been treated, escaped. Oh Yes! They took off like the devil himself was behind them, straight onto the road and along past the village hall. I am indebted to the car driver (of origin unknown) who had the presence of mind to stop their car, turn on their hazards and also flag down the car behind them.

I will not set my dogs past sheep on the road unless I deem it safe and this car gave me the confidence to do this, might seem strange to anyone reading this but my dogs are worth more to me than the sheep are, if there is going to be an accident involving traffic I would sooner the sheep were the ones involved and not the dogs.

It was a grand morning and as I was having a day off therefore the delays were of no great hardship.

Except a rush did ensue as time flew (as it does when you're having fun) and before I knew it I had to rush away and gather some bags of silage and hay from a local farmer to enter into the fodder show which was being judged at the pub at 1pm.

The local Vicar alongside the Chairman of the Parish Council were the judges on the day. Seemingly the vicar walked in to pay some debts - I thought she was paying off her tab from behind the bar but seemingly not (still prefer that explanation though) - fresh from the local Church service, the poor old vicar was pounced upon and given the job, being a horsey person she actually had a sound knowledge of fodder anyhow and between the two of them a good job was done.

The fodder show was well supported with 13 local farmers entering produce which was either a bag of hay (or small bale) or a bag of silage/haylage, obviously this then meant Shep found herself in the pub in the afternoon, had a grand crack (conversation) with all and sundry and was about set to become part of the fittings when it was brought to my attention that it was Blood Donors day. Ah! Fortunately I had been drinking Coke and so took myself down to the local small town, to the school and got to have an afternoon lie down.

I seemed to have verbal diarrhoea whilst at Blood Donors (I blame the Coke!), I'm sure they were pleased to see the back of me!! Anyhow, my naturally inquisitive mind took to enquiring as to the what haves of the blood carry on. They say the average person has 8 pints of blood in them (I always thought it was 7 - learnt something there!), if you are below 7 stone 12 you can't donate (no fear on that one!), we don't give a pint - only three quarters, however the anti co agulant in the bag makes it up to a pint. The blood being collected goes into a bag which is rocked in a cradle to prevent it from clotting. Our blood that we've lost will soon be replaced however it will be diluted. The reason we have to wait 17 weeks before donating again is that the blood has to have time to regain it's quality, thicken up again I guess.

All this was followed by a cup of tea and fortunately there were still some bourbon creams left to dunk in the tea ( I love bourbon creams!), a bit more crack with one or two other donors, sheep crack I'm afraid, a farmers wife and myself discussing the impending lambing season, the bareness of the fields and all manner of important farming subjects! Returning home, managing not to stop at the pub, the dinner was put in the oven next to the fire to have it ready in time to watch Countryfile on the telly and see how the Tarset farmers faired with their five minutes of fame. They came over really well - strange seeing folks you know on the telly.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Skylarks and Peewits

Shep is so excited! Hey! - it doesn't take much y'know! The title may be a give away.......

Spring seems as though it is trying to arrive - exciting or what??

The end of February saw Shep gathering ground I had never gathered before, it was snowing like mad, poor visibility and I was struggling to find a safe route let alone any sheep
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Eventually dropping down off the tops there was no doubt about it that sheep were infront of me and hopefully were all gathered
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There had been a fair fall of snow once again and you couldn't help but question whether spring was ever likely to return to Tarset. However, two days later saw the beginnning of March. Sharp, frosty weather came in with the month. Hard mornings followed by bright sunny days. But more importantly the skylarks returned, their voices bringing cheer to my heart, peewits (lapwings) too, tumbling about the skies and pee-witting away merrily.
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Snow still visible, ground rock hard with frost, sunshine with heat in it, skylarks and peewits singing away. Spuggies (sparrows) and starlings mating up and nest building - there is hope. Here we are into March and the signs are returning, the days are lengthening, we are creeping out of winter and towards spring - SO EXCITING!

Friday, 5 March 2010

snow bathing

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Okay, I can hear you muttering............. What the hell is that meant to be? Well, try looking a bit closer..
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Still none the wiser huh? Well it is one of my dogs having a snow bath and loving every minute of it. Both dogs love to roll in snow, dewy grass or anything which they feel will freshen them up, I'm sure it's their version of a shower. Although I must admit they also enjoy rolling on dead carcases or fox and badger shit which I can guarantee to you has the opposite effect of freshening up!
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This dog - Moss - had been gathering sheep for an hour when I stopped the bike and he took his opportunity to 'freshen up', or maybe he was cooling down, or even trying to dislodge the snow balls (shown on the first photo)which were clinging to the fur on his under carriage. What ever he was doing he thoroughly enjoyed the experience before we went on our way to gather yet more sheep.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

The Apprentice(s) and Tarset on Telly

Tarset farmers are to find themselves on telly, seemingly this Sunday evening no less (7th March), on the weekly farming programme Countryfile.

The telly cameras turned up in the area a fortnight back to film and highlight the Apprenticeship scheme. A scheme backed by Northumberland National Park to encourage youngsters to go into farming.

There are three areas in Northumberland other than the North Tyne where farmers are taking on apprentices, these being the Roman Wall, Wooler and the Coquet. Three apprentices are designated an area each and spend a fortnight at a time on each farm signed up to the scheme, seemingly also spending a week at college in between times.

The farmers who signed up have a subscription fee to pay with the remainder of the wages being made up by the Park itself.

A sound idea, one which has already run in many other areas of the country. These youngsters are getting an opportunity to learn hands on about farming and what it entails, working on different farms in the area and therefore gaining different ideas from each farm. A scheme intended to get youth back into farming.

In many ways we are lucky as there is a fair bit of young blood in Northumberland. The local group of the Blackfaced Sheep Breeders Association recently released figures which said a third of its membership is made up of people below the age of thirty, so there is hope for the future of farming if these figures are anything to go by.

Some of these apprentices have no previous knowledge of agriculture at all which is a difficult position to be in if you wish to have a career in it, especially as agricultural colleges are closing courses due to lack of interest. This scheme is enabling those who think they would like to enter the industry an opportunity to have a taster of what it is all about and hopefully inspire them to 'join up' full time. Whether there will be jobs available for them at the end is a different matter. Things have changed drastically. When I first came into the valley many years ago (hired as a full time shepherd on an out-bye farm) there were nine shepherds employed in this area, now there is only one full time shepherd, hence the reason, due to redundancy, I ended up self employed.

To date the 'kids' seem to be enjoying the challenges thrown at them and are appreciating the opportunity they have been given. To learn more you'll just have to tune in to BBC 1 on Sunday evening.