Tuesday, 18 May 2010

An update

Posted by Picasa
The above photo was taken on the bank holiday Monday at the beginning of May. It was absolutely beautiful but that is about all that could be said. Hard frost which once again cleared to a dry but very cold day, those winds of a northerly aspect really weren't keen on giving up. That has got to be my main memory of this past lambing time. The cold and barren weather. I don't think I have ever been so thankful that it managed to remain dry for the majority of the time. The barren lambing season reminds me so much of 2001 lets hope the outcome for farmers will be more positive than it was that year.
Posted by Picasa

All in all my lambing over in the borders of Scotland went well, sure there was the problem of dysentery but other than that all was fairly good, had it not been for that problem I would have had a very good lambing. Ewes were beginning to take hurt by the time I was leaving, they were getting what we call sucked down. As the lambs grow so do their bellies, usually by this time there is a flush of spring grass which gives the ewes a lift and also supplements the lambs diet. The flush didn't come and some ewes were showing signs of weakening.

There have been some poorer lambings which is to be expected. The atrocious weather at the end of March/beginning of April hit those who were doing early lambings hard. Hill sheep were also hit hard, just a matter of weeks before they were due to lamb it was very much the last straw after such a long hard winter.

It would seem that quite a number of sheep kebbed (aborted) at about this time. Those who battled on were weakening by the day. Ewes succumbed to drains, burns, twin lamb disease and general poverty. This is no reflection on either the farmers or the shepherds - it's nature, good ol' mother nature at her worst. There were lean ewes lambing down and walking on - a last ditch attempt at self survival, no interest in the lamb just an interest in surviving - you can't blame them.

It hasn't all been doom and gloom, there are lambs running around everywhere. Some have had very good lambings but I for one wouldn't like to foot their feed bills, others reflect on the fact that it could have been worse, wet would have seen phenomenal losses on a year such as this. All will tell you the same "the lambing gets through, unlike hay time which may never come to an end"

Posted by Picasa

My twins over the back ended up on cake. For all this is a high running hill farm it is a very grassy place and would normally feed the sheep no bother, this year was different with the result the twins needed feeding. I would have let them away to the hill, however the intention was to have all the ewes and lambs through the pens and the lamb marking done, seemed daft to let all the twins away to cause bother when I then had to gather the hill and so onto cake they went. What a difference. The ewes had been getting no peace from their lambs, forever hammering away wanting more milk, the cake gave the ewes a lift, helped the milk supply and everything settled down.

There was much I could have reported on at lambing time, if only time and energy had allowed. Dongling is all well and good but very time consuming, especially as it meant driving somewhere where there was full mobile reception, more often than not my bed beckoned.

Once the height of the lambing got through I shed in. Those lambing on the hill were dropped into a field, I went through them to see what was and was not in lamb with those still expectant held in so as easier found. Herding the hill dropped to twice a day as all those due to lamb were nearer at hand. We started lamb marking with the other shepherds flock as he had lambed in fields all the time and the ground was so bear he was desperate to release them to the hill. The last week saw my ewes all gathered and their lambs marked. It's the first time since I've lambed there that everything got done before I left. I left at May Term (13th May) and there were only 9 remaining to lamb. I've often wondered since how they're getting on.......

The last few nights a great deal of socialising went on. I am so fortunate that both neighbouring farms are shepherded by people I know well and they are kind enough to offer me the occasional supper, which is much appreciated as I seemed to live on bacon butties, chocolate and salad (not the weather for salad but it is very easily made!)

I spent my last night in the cottage making a snowman. I always like to leave my mark when I leave - very sad I know! Anyhow, there had been snow showers on the last three days I was there and I thought this was a hilarious idea to make a snowman. As is oft the case there is a story..........

A neighbouring farmer had told me I must call in for a cup of tea before I left. A guy I have know since my first shepherding job and who came over the border many years ago and played his accordion at my housewarming. My last day in the Borders was spent lamb marking the Crunchylaw and Dod Law lambs, come mid afternoon the shepherd and I headed off to visit the fore mentioned farmer for the cup of tea. It was the usual Borders hospitality, which I partook of in the mid and late afternoon, the tumblers of whisky went down well...... I headed to the hill that evening barely able to mount my trusty stead. Once back to the cottage I had the brainwave of making a snowman.......

Plastic feed bags were my chosen material (well, there was nowt else) and after many laborious hours I had a snow man to be proud of. By the cold light of day the following morning I really wasn't so sure - plastic bags stitched with baler twine and stuffed with twigs......... umm........ Also the cheesey smiley face which I had drawn on with sheep keel had a rather macabre look about it. Never mind, I wasn't going to let all that hard work and effort go to waste.

I have been told by a friend that she spotted my 'snowman' that afternoon, it had a lopsided plastic bag look about it........ In my drunken stupor I do wonder if I had made a self impression!!! The shepherd I had worked for recounted our visit to see this farmer to the other shepherd on the morning I left "we came away and my lambing man was tipsy....... mind the auld herd was nae better!" It had been a good afternoon!!

So, Shep is back in Tarset. It seems like an eternity since I was away lambing and yet it is just a number of days. Life has been hectic and much has been done since my return - lamb marking and also clipping hoggs. My old boss years ago often used to say after lambing time that he felt he had a touch of louping ill (a sheep disease caused by ticks which can drop sheep off their feet) and that he felt a bottle of ewe tonic wouldn't go amiss. I must be ageing coz I feel exactly the same this year, I now know what he meant and how he must have felt. I'm putting it down to fighting with the cold for ever and a day and probably too much 'partying'. However, life is looking up as today has been hot, even though I have been bent over looking at my feet and clipping sheep I was still aware that it has been a beautiful spring day - At long last! Let's celebrate!!

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Stone walls - a habitat

Posted by Picasa

Its a wall, dry stone wall or dyke, but look closer. What else can you see if you look beyond the obvious?

There is always something to be seen if you open your eyes and take it in, as I often say "there is beauty all around you, just open your eyes and see it". Bear in mind I was working at this wall on a wet, windy, day. You could be forgiven for thinking there was nothing to inspire me on such a dreary day, standing in clarts (mud), lifting heavy stones and occasionally taking shelter in the dyke back - not much to be cheery about? Well there was.......
Posted by Picasa

I was able to enjoy my own private nature ramble. Not only did I have the birds of the countryside for company, I also had the curiosity of some sheep forever hopeful that I may have some cake (sheep food) for them along with the 'pleasures' of the weather. I also opened my eyes and looked closer. Lichens grow all over the walls, a sign of good air quality they seem to thrive on our stone walls, the above always catches my eye, bringing brightness to an otherwise bland background.
Posted by Picasa

Mosses and lichens grown together, some walls can be covered in moss, usually to be found in a sheltered damp area the moss will soon clothe the stones in a green blanket. Seeds can find themselve blown or deposited by birds in a wall, a small amount of soil is all that is needed to have ferns or sapling trees sprouting from the cracks in the wall
Posted by Picasa

There is also the unseen. As the back fill settles in a wall tunnels can be found through it, ideal habitat for adders, stoats, mice and voles and even rabbits. The gap I repaired had me delving in the foundations, a nest of grasses was found alongside some sort of mouse droppings, a cosy home.

Over the years I have found some interesting and not so interesting artefacts in a stone wall. Empty bottles and glass can be a favourite. These bottles are often old corked bottles, many of them coloured, some so small I imagine they must have been used for storing some sort of medicine. Fossils are often found in the stones themselves. Once I was fortunate to find a whole fossil, cylindrical and the thickness of my wrist it turned out to be the fossilised remains of bracken type plant and now adorns my office. Skulls and bones of some life long since lost can while away a minute or two as I try to discern what the living version may have been. The worst I've ever found? Has to be adders. A built in human instinct to fear danger causes your heart to stop and an involuntary reaction kicks in which causes me to gasp and jump backwards - never fails!!

The next time you walk past a stone wall, look closer. If you live in a town don't despair, your air quality may not be as good as we have in Tarset but still take time and look. There will be something to catch your eye, even if only the patterns left by bird droppings I'm sure you could find something to marvel at for a second or two.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Setting lambs on

When lambs are born dead or have died the ewe is given another lamb to keep her happy and healthy. The lamb adopted on to the ewe is generally a twin. By lifting the twin lamb you then have two singles which fare better on the hill ground, you’ll hopefully end up with two good lambs rather than two average lambs. Twins off gimmers are often lifted first, a gimmer is having her first crop of lambs and it is deemed kinder to let her run with one if possible, however, there can often be something which needs lifting, a pair of lambs struggling due to lack of milk from their mother, these lambs will have priority for being set on over a gimmers lamb as they need a fresh mother.

So you have a dead lamb. The mother will usually be standing over the carcase or be nearby. Occasionally they are nowhere to be seen and so a hunt ensues, invariably in this situation you will be looking for a gimmer (first lamber), or a very lean sheep which has no interest what so ever in being a mother, she just wants to survive, in this case it would be pointless setting a lamb on.

There are many approaches to getting the ewe gathered up. Catch her with your stick, dog her down, carry the lamb and hope she follows. I’m lambing cheviots which are notorious for being wild and feisty, I’m also lambing on steep ground, sheep do like to run down hill and also catching them with the stick takes a fair bit of strength on steep going. I learnt the hard way as stick and sheep careered down the hillside as I was practically pulled off my feet
Posted by Picasa
A very kind sheep, one which only runs a couple of yards away as you approach the lamb will easily follow the carcase if it is dragged along by a long piece of string. A wilder sheep, one which bools off in a frantic fashion is best turned down the hill by the dog and followed down to the net and parracks at the bottom.

Posted by Picasa
Nets and parracks are situated all over the hill ground, often to be found in stells (sheep folds) as well. They are invaluable, no sheep ever head back into the farmyard, there is absolutely no need and anyhow it would be far too time consuming, especially when on foot, even with a bike unless you were strong enough to lift the sheep onto the bike you would have to tow a trailer which is a real hindrance. Nets and parracks are the answer and all my shepherding life I have been accustomed to them, in fact I wouldn’t be happy doing a lambing without them.

The parrack is actually a small pen in which to confine the sheep whilst the lamb is being set on. The net is an enclosure – often posts and sheep net – into which the sheep and set on lamb can be released into prior to being let out into the big wide world again.
Posted by Picasa
So, the ewe has followed the carcase of her lamb from the spot that she was standing over it all the way into the net. The dog was left lying back, absolutely no need to excite the beast and cause her any grief, her natural kind instinct got her this far.

Posted by Picasa
When the ewe entered the ‘net’ I climbed out and secured the wicket behind her, I’d got her this far I really didn’t want her to change her mind and charge off into oblivion. (Never trust a sheep!)The gate of the parrack was opened and the ewe was gently coaxed by walking towards her (they will generally run past you if you walk to the side of them), she shot into the parrack and like grease lightening the gate was shut behind her. Captured. As you can see the dead lamb is put in beside her but left for me to gain easy access to it when I want to remove it. I do not want to open the parrack again until the sheep is released if I can help it.

This episode all happened on my first lap in the morning. I left them and set about the rest of my herding. Neither ewe or lamb would be going anywhere and I most probably had more important matters waiting to be found, I also had my breakfast to get. I would return on my second round with a lamb to set on.

Posted by Picasa
When lambing on foot I always carried a lambing bag, usually a hessian sack with a band to hang over your back. With lambing on a bike I tend to stick the lamb in the front of my jacket, it’s held secure and leaves my hands free for driving the bike. Once at the net I’ll set it into an empty parrack until it is ready to receive its jacket.

Posted by Picasa
A lamb is skinned in a similar way to a rabbit. Slit through the skin along the inside line of the back legs and peel it away. Gruesome? Well you might think so but it is the best and most successful way to set a lamb on to a hill ewe. The smell of her original lamb is all over that skin, even if it was born dead she has invariably licked it and the scent has been logged in her brain. Give her a lamb which smells totally different to what she is expecting and she will bash it, we call it knocking off, in a confined space such as a parrack she is quite capable of killing a lamb which she deems is not hers and so....... give her a lamb which smells like her dead one and she is content.

Posted by Picasa
There is no need to use your knife to cut the skin off at the hocks as a good tug will tear the skin away at this point. The skin is pulled away from the back legs and hips, cutting through the tail to release that with the skin. The most important part of the skin is the bit which covers the backside of the lamb. The whole skin is important but when the lamb goes in for its first suck the ewe will turn to sniff it – the backside needs to be well covered.
Posted by Picasa
Once the back legs are removed from the skin I usually stand on both back legs and pull the skin up towards me, this is a bit like peeling a banana (you’ll never see a banana in the same light again!) So long as you haven’t got into a layer of muscle the skin will peel off the body relatively easily, it will however stick at the head and front legs, like when a little kid has its jumper pulled off over its head, they always seem to stick at the hands and head – same thing! Except a knife is needed to cut around the leg and upper neck to release the ‘jumper’ all together. (just as well we don’t have to do that to kids!)
Posted by Picasa
Once off the skin does resemble a jumper, it has sleeves at the front and a polo neck, the back legs have a slit put into each of the flaps of skin so the live lambs legs can be pushed through and this will keep the skin securely in place and hold it tight over the back end of the lamb – the important bit!
Posted by Picasa
The live lamb then has to be dressed with the dead lamb’s skin. Depending on the size of the lamb and the size of the skin adjustments do occasionally have to be made, skins stretch quite easily and this is sometimes necessary to get them to fit the new lamb, sometimes they are far too big and will be a hindrance, preventing the lamb from moving freely and so they have to be shortened – tailored to fit, no expense spared!
Posted by Picasa
It is now time to introduce lamb to ewe. The ewe is as already said confined to a parrack, the lamb is set in with the intention of having its head pointing towards her bag (udder) and its arse towards her nose. I will often hunger a lamb before setting it on as it is a great help if it wants a suck. Sucking is a great comforter to both mother and lamb and if the lamb will go in and suck straight away the only thing the ewe has got to smell is its back and backside, which pleases her no end as it smells exactly the same as the lamb she had, the lamb which seemed to go into a long sleep and has suddenly re awakened and relieved the pressure off her bag. Once sucked and full the lamb will settle down and sleep, causing no hassle to the ewe. She too will settle and feel content. I leave them.
Posted by Picasa
This ewe was found with a dead lamb during my first round in the morning, on my second lap the lamb was set on. I looked in on them on my last lap later in the afternoon, both were settled, lamb was full.

First lap the following morning the skin came off the lamb, I reached in with my lambing stick and dragged the lamb close enough to reach it by hand, lift it out of the parrack and remove the skin and place it back in the parrack with its new mother. By this time, less than 24 hours, the body heat of the lamb had caused the skin to start to go rancid, the lamb would no longer smell as it did originally but the ewe had become accustomed to the new odour as it gradually ‘matured’. At this stage I also opened the parrack and quietly walked away.

The second lap after I had had my breakfast both were more than content. I opened the net to the hill ground and walked away. At their leisure both ewe and lamb would walk out into the big wide world. Just 24 hours from having been first set on they were united as mother and offspring. The bond had been made and all was well. During the whole episode I had never laid a hand on the ewe. Cheviots are indeed very kind creatures, they are also extremely kittle (touchy), where possible it pays to keep off and treat with the utmost respect. Treat them right and they’ll treat you right.

Even the ones that I have to turn down the hill and steer with the dog into a net down at the bottom, they are agitated due to the interference of the dog but if you treat them with respect, don’t show the whites of your eyes, as quietly and quickly as possible get them into a parrack and then leave well alone the results are quite rewarding.

At the tender age of eighteen I recall coming in for dinner one day and relaying to my boss the difficulties I had experienced trying to get a ewe and lamb out of the stell after I had successfully set it on. The boss looked at me and with a wry grin said “you open the gate and walk away, at their leisure ewe and lamb will saunter out” Sound advice I have never forgotten.