Sunday, 26 September 2010

Dressing mule ewe lambs

Shep's been busy. It's the season for the sheep breeding sales and sheep have to be dressed. We don't dress them up in clothes we just titivate them up somewhat. Same as when we like to look our best - bit of a hair cut and tidy up is what we give them.

The first sales of the season tend to be for the more in-bye breeds. The mule ewe lamb is one of those. Actually the mule ewe lamb is bred from hill sheep and many farms in Tarset with some kinder ground do breed these lambs. The blackfaced or swaledale ewes being crossed with the blue faced leicester tup gives you your mule, recognised as a true breed, even has it's own breed society but in actual fact it is a cross breed - a much sought after mongrel.

The mule has long been recognised as a prolific breeding sheep, carrying the best attributes of both it's parents it has been much sought after the length and breadth of the country as a breeding ewe which produces quality fat lambs. Due to this the north of England has become a breeding area for the mule.
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The mule ewe lamb finds herself being dressed to enhance her physical qualities. Carcase is a priority (a shapely figure), followed by skin type (tight purly wool), they ought to carry their heads high and sport a good set of ears. Personal preferences have seen many prefer those lambs with a dark head colour although in all fairness one which has a light coloured face will breed just the same, it boils down to what pleases the eye of the beholder.

The lambs in the above photo have yet to be dressed, they are carrying wool around their cheeks, the belly wool makes them look lower to the ground and shorter of the body, the hair on their faces also give them an immature look. The idea of dressing them out is to give the impression of a bigger, better carcased animal.

Unfortunately it would seem that buyers cannot see beyond a dressed sheep, set a pen full in front of them which are undressed and they will generally be a less price than those which are turned out for the job, add to that the fact that farmers and shepherds like to take pride in their stock and turn them out to the best of their abilities you then find that the autumn sees a great deal of sheep being dressed, and not just mule ewe lambs but every other breed you could imagine also.
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The above lamb has been dressed. The neck has been clipped out to 'give her more neck' - lift her head and set her head off. The belly has been clipped giving the impression of being longer of the leg and also the body. Ears have been clipped to accentuate their size, some of the hair has been shaved off the face making the head look sharper, broader and exaggerating a slightly roman nose which is a breed characteristic.

There are a variety of styles of dressing but they all aim to achieve the same things, it's just a matter of different areas and different people have different styles. The day used to be that every sheep dressed was probably done so in a slightly different manner. Some would need to be dressed hard around the neck to give them more neck, others might need their chests dressed hard to make them appear broader. There are many tricks of the trade and all can help to alter the appearance of a particular animal. All I can do is share the basics with you, life would be too complicated otherwise!

And so, back to dressing mule ewe lambs. What is needed? An electric machine and a pair of hand shears will suffice.

What I call 'commercial' dressing of sheep is almost all done with the electric. The days of dressing with hand shears when you're paid by the head is now long past as it is far more time consuming. Although when it comes to dressing black faces and swaledales it is all done with hand shears but then they don't require quite so much attention.
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Shep prefers to back a sheep into the corner and stand astride to dress her. There are many who use dressing stools but a) you have to lift them into the stool and b) I always found they hunched up too much for dressing the fronts successfully. So, once they've been sat on their backsides to have their bellies clipped it's back onto their feet and into the corner with them.

A steady hand is required to dress the wool around the necks and chests. Sheep don't stand still, they tend not to be placid and helpful, instead preferring to bounce around in the hope of escaping your clutches. Being over zealous whilst the electric machine is running can lead to wool coming off where you don't want it to and once it's been cut off it can't be put back. So a steady hand in control of the handpiece and a strong arm in control of the sheep is a necessity.
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Ideally a cattle comb is best to use on the hair on the lambs head, it clips barer as the teeth are closer together, it is also safer to use. However it isn't as easy to use on the wool of the body as it bungs up too easily due to the narrowness of the teeth, therefore I tend to just use a normal wool comb for everything.
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An ability to use both right and left hands whilst dressing is a god send, it makes access to the bits you wish to clip such a lot easier and enables an even clip all over.
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An arty shot! It does however show the speed that the machine can be going at, or ought I say the arm which is powering the machine? Anyhow, whilst the sheep is jumping around and the machine is running it is often too easy to stab oneself, I have a number of small triangular scars on my left fore arm caused by self mutilation due to lack of concentration, strangely enough my right arm seems to have been more fortunate!
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The above were mule lambs out of the swaledale ewe and they are definitely hairier of the head than those out of the blackface but the photo shows just how much hair comes flying off their faces when they are shaved. These little, short, sharp hairs manage to get everywhere, often the tweezers are required once in the bath at night to remove them from some tender areas of the body where they have found themselves embedded, a rash across the belly is not unheard of with little stubbly hairs sticking out - all sheep hairs I may add! I tend to wear as many layers of clothes as possible (whilst trying not to cause heat exhaustion), in an attempt to stop these splinters of hairs from transplanting themselves all over my torso.
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Eventually you hope all your efforts have been worth while. You can stand back and view your hard work, a well dressed sheep is pleasing to the eye. She'll stand proud and look alert and hopefully catch the eye of the buyers when she goes through the ring at the auction mart.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Lambs away.

I mentioned the wagon was due in, away out bye, to lift the fat lambs and take them direct to slaughter - much work was to be done to get everything ready before the wagon pulled up in the yard. The weather broke, sunshine gave way to rain, sheep were saturated and working conditions were less than perfect. That's life!

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The conditions were really quite uncomfortable, it pissed down, no polite way to describe it really. Rain ran down my face, off my nose and chin end, finally ending up running down my neck and getting soaked up by clothing below - not the best, except....... it was mild which I'm sure was a help, steaming below waterproof gear there was no doubt about it I felt warm!

The shepherd from out bye and myself split up this particular morning. He shepherds a huge patch of ground which possesses two sets of sheep pens, the ones at the home farm he worked in all morning with his helper and the ones two miles further down the road I worked in all morning, again with assistance. We were both doing similar tasks.

Each field of sheep was gathered in. At my end every lamb other than a keeping ewe lamb was shed off along with the old ewes which are getting drafted from the flock. Those which remained were set back out to the hill ground where they belong before gathering the next field in. The wagon wasn't due 'til 2pm so there was little panic, allowing a minute or two to shelter in the hay shed away from the rain.

Finally the pens I was working in were full of lambs and draft ewes which were to be walked the two miles down the track to the 'home' farm.

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Reminiscent of the days of the drovers (which believe you me I can't remember). Drove roads are to be found all over the borders, roads which led to auctions or railway stations. Men on foot or horseback would drive sheep and cattle for miles and miles, often needing to stop overnight somewhere before resuming their journey the following day. Once upon a time all stock was moved in this manner.

The above photo shows the lambs and old ewes being driven a couple of miles, no shank's pony for the 'drover' though just a modern day quad bike. Lambs are notoriously difficult to drive when fresh spaened, they have no adult sheep to lead the way and are capable of panicking and running in all directions. Good dogs are essential to keep them together in a flock and control them. This drive was made easier by the fact the old ewes were with the lambs, some 'sensible' sheep to lead the way and respect the dogs.

The good news was we weren't the only ones to get a good soaking, the weather had been no better two miles down the road!

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There were in actual fact one or two sunny blinks, soggy jackets were discarded for a short while. Soon all became apparent as the muggy, clammy, sticky weather and it's horrendously heavy rain showers were joined by flashes of lightening and brattles of thunder - what a surprise!!

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Eventually all the lambs destined for the wagon were tagged and ready and waiting - all 346 of them, they were run into a shed in an attempt to prevent them from getting any wetter whilst for us dinner was the order of the day.

Draft ewes had their udders and teeth checked, were dosed and sent to respective fields. Store lambs were also dosed and sent into a good grassy field where they ought to improve and freshen up. All this was done and still the wagon hadn't arrived. Flashes of lightening had had me jumping on occasions (I really ought not to have watched a documentary on the TV about lightening strikes!!), once over I concluded it was not wise to be hanging on to the metal chain which Kale was attached to and I wondered if the rubber tyres of the bike would actually save me any - I obviously had too much time on my hands!! I found out at a later date how fortunate we had been, a neighbour just over the hill top had lost two cows which had been struck by lightening. Nature can be harsh at times.

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Finally the wagon appeared over the horizon and it was 'all hands on deck'

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The lambs are run onto the wagon in small numbers, the huntaway dog is a useful addition to help load the wagon. Huntaways bark on command and believe you me if one of those was chasing up my backside barking I too would be running up the ramp into the wagon!

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A four storey articulated wagon was needed to house all the lambs. The lambs are run onto the wagon in small numbers and shut off in compartments within the wagon. This ensures that each lamb has plenty of room around them, plenty of air and there is no fear of them squashing or smothering one another, they have sufficient room to stand or lie down comfortably and find themselves bedded on sawdust so won't have to lie in the slutter that could be made with all the muck and urine that passes through them. A very comfortable journey!

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Finally the wagon is loaded, movement licences are handed over and the lambs are ready to depart. A 2-3 hour journey will see them reach their destination and then they will be history as they say.

Now before you all cringe and ooh and aah, bear in mind that these lambs have had a wonderful existence. Living in a truly beautiful part of the British Isles, they've had a totally stress free life and breathed some of the purest air there is to be found, they have been loaded onto a state of the art wagon and will have a comfortable journey. What more could they possibly ask for?

The beauty of our countryside is due to the livestock which graze it. Head into Scotland and view the unkempt hills to be found in some areas - a stark reminder of what will happen if no sheep are to graze our hills.

Selling sheep for meat is also a necessity , they are what pay the bills, keep the shepherd out bye in a job and myself too. Not only that, but it is some of the tastiest meat you could wish to eat, being naturally fed on heather and herbs it really does bring out the flavour of the area from which they were reared.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Heatwave in Tarset

I do recall mentioning the fact that Tarset was experiencing a heatwave, in many ways summer had returned even though there was no doubt we were really heading into autumn.

The heatwave turned out to be a mini heatwave, although greatly appreciated for the time it lasted.

The week of the heatwave saw Shep helping the shepherd away out bye to gather his hill ewes and get the fat lambs sorted, store lambs spaened (weaned) and keeping ewe lambs retained. Misty mornings caused a little grief as gathering early is the key to success but heading out to the hill tops in a thick mist is unlikely to result in a good gather.

There was an added complication, a different sort of heat. A bitch on heat!! The shepherd out bye runs bitches whereas I always have dogs. My abilities to steer Moss were on occasion a tad erratic as his mind often seemed to be elsewhere, his nose and hormones taking him in a different direction to my intended route! Once sheep were gathered in a heap ready to be driven to the pens it often paid for one of us to hold back in a bid to ensure 'puppy making' didn't happen!!

Friday 3rd September was the foggiest of the lot, resulting in not heading to the hill until twenty to ten in the morning. Usually sheep would be penned and breakfast enjoyed by this late hour of the day, but not this particular morning as we headed out in the coolness of the dwindling mist.

Once the mist burnt off completely the temperature rose dramatically, sheep had been determined to head 'out' as opposed to 'in' due in main to the lateness of attempting to gather. Dogs had had to do a lot of leg work to encourage the blighters to turn around and head in the direction intended and the temperature kept rising....

It was close to midday when the pen gates were closed on the sheep and they were held secure ready for the work to commence. The back of my neck was feeling the burning rays of the sun and the dogs were heading for any wet holes they could find to wallow and cool off.

There was pressure on to get these sheep gathered and sorted as a wagon was booked in a day or two to take all the fat lambs away and off to the slaughter house - a deadline had to be met. I recall last year having problems with the weather also, slightly different problems, ones which involved a great deal of rain as covered in last years posting -

It was a pleasure to be able to go around all day wearing boots instead of the customary wellies, vest or t-shirt rather than soggy top coats. Sheep also look their best in good weather, when dry of their skins they are fluffed up and bloomy looking - pleasing to the eye.

All was looking well. Everyday which we'd allocated for the job was needed to get all the sheep sorted and lambs drawn. The result being that on the final evening everything was successfully gathered, ewes and lambs were held in fields ready for the following day when each field would be individually gathered, fat lambs would be run off their mothers, tagged and left waiting for the wagon to arrive. Store lambs would also be run off, dosed and put onto fresh ground. Draft(old) ewes too would find themselves shed off, dosed and kept in-bye whilst all the regular ages of sheep and keeping ewe lambs would be returned to their hill ground. All this to be done before the wagon pulled into the yard in the afternoon - nae bother, extra staff on hand and it would be done!

The wind rose that night, branches came down, the rowan berries which to date the starlings still had not raided came off the tree in handfuls. We had a gale, followed by rain. The following day was a wet one. Lambs looked nowhere near as good as they had days previous, wet and bedraggled they were but the job went on and the deadline was met.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Autumn has arrived

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I don't know that I have ever seen such a crop of Rowan berries on the tree at our cottage, they appear to be hanging like grapes and to date the starlings haven't turned up to strip the branches of their glory. The berries are a sure sign that autumn is heading our way.
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There are fungi a plenty. Interestingly enough the edible mushroom appeared very early in the season, finding itself gathered from the pasture ground and into the frying pan in late July, probably due to the wet/damp weather we were experiencing at the time, it has cropped well and is still to be found and enjoyed.
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The heather is coming into it's own, a tremendous show of purple bloom to be appreciated on the hill tops throughout the area.
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At the present moment Tarset is enjoying a mini summer, a heatwave even, much appreciated by all after the previous weeks of inclement weather. The heather is taking advantage of this as are numerous bees and butterflies. The peacock butterfly is to be seen all over the hill ground at the moment.

The weather is so good that the last fields of silage are being picked up. Some is making into very good hay (hay is dried grass whereas silage is damp grass). Bent (strong hill grasses) out on the hills is even being cut and baled up. Bent hay is a good feed and often overlooked in modern times, it was pretty usual in a good spell such as this to cut the hill grass and bale it up then lead it to the hay huts situated out on the hill at each cut of sheep, this enabled the sheep to have fodder during the harsh winter months.

Shep finished clipping on 18th August with a final tally of over 3,250, it was rounded down rather than up. Sheep were flying clipping by this time of the season and it was a pleasure to finish on a 'high' and exactly three months to the date from when the first sheep of the season was shorn.

Much time has been spent dipping, gathering, spaening, dressing lambs during and since the last sheep was shorn. Someday I'll cover some of these jobs on this blog.

So, it sounds as though I'm talking about summer - silage, hay, clipping....... and yet I'm claiming that Autumn has arrived. Well to start with the days are drawing in, light at 6am, dark at 9pm. There have been one or two night frosts. The brackens are turning (dying off). We are getting into the sheep sale season. Lambs are being spaened (weaned) off their mothers. All in all the signs are there, there is no getting away from the fact that the autumn season is arriving - after all, it is September!

I'll leave you to dwell on the fact that the summer is really officially over whilst you peruse these two shots of Scabious, whether budding or in bloom it is a truly beautiful piece of natures architecture.
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