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
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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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!)
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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!
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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!
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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.
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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.

3 comments:

Emma Anderson said...

Another fascinating post, thanks, a real eye-opener.

Tarset Shepherd said...

Pleased you liked it Emma, hoped the subject matter would be interesting to those who aren't squeamish.

Tarset Shepherd said...

Pleased you liked it Emma, hoped the subject matter would be interesting to those who aren't squeamish.