Thursday, 14 April 2011

Night Lambing

Well, Shep is once again away up in the Borders of Scotland doing the fortnights stint of night lambing, which will be followed by a month of hill lambing.

For the first time since I’ve been doing the night shift on this farm I have opted to reside here. There is an empty cottage which I have the use of for the duration of my hill lambing, it is sparsely furnished but comfortable enough for a week or so. The cost of diesel for the car, 2 hours travelling back and forth every day to get home, lack of sleep, the water company relaying pipes outside home and a desire to get on with a ‘project’ all added up to me being sensible for once and staying put.

Being sensible has never been a strong point of mine; however, vivid memories of last year came to the fore. I probably over did it, I probably became over tired, in fact I turned into some sort of zombie, managing to drive myself on through sheer determination but doing myself no favours in the process. This year will be different!

I turned up for the start of the lambing with the car laden. It never fails to amaze me how much stuff is needed; it is almost like moving house. It’s not just a matter of clothes, of which I really need very few, as there is a washing machine, there’s a couple of bags of dog food needed also. Plates, dishes, food, radio, alarm clock, bedding, books to read, a bottle or two of port (or whisky, or a can of beer or whatever might be needed for those occasions when it is necessary to chill!) Still I manage to forget things. I’ve returned home twice so far in the first ten days, a dishcloth was required to help with washing the dishes (unfortunately they don’t do it themselves), kindling sticks to light the fire with (a dumpy bag full of old fence posts are at my disposal for the duration of my stay, mebbes I ought to have just brought an axe back). My second journey home saw me returning with salt, don’t use it a vast amount but tomatoes just aren’t the same without a pickle salt on them.

On both occasions when returning home I did so to do some work in the area, catch up with the other half and collect my mail. Both times saw me comatose the following day as I caught up on my sleep.

And so? How is the lambing going?

To date things haven’t been too bad at all. The sheep are generally fit and milky, the weather is good and there is grass everywhere, even back home folks are saying it’s a long time since they can recall so much grass so early in the season – a huge help, keeping ewes and lambs on a rising plane. I’ve even stopped feeding the hill sheep.

Once daybreak dawns the shed sheep are let out into a field near at hand to lamb outdoors during the day. Shep then heads to the hill, I feed the hill ewes with a pickle (little bit) sheep cake and check all is well with them, once they commence lambing they no longer receive their morning feed. This year I’ve knocked them off the feed a good few days before they’re due to lamb, there is so much grass available for them and the weather was very kind at the time, almost like summer, we really had a heat wave, I was even able to head to the hill at 7.30am in shirt sleeves, by the time I was heading back to the steading (farmyard) I could easily be stripped down to a T shirt. Tremendous weather for the time of the year, long may it last. Just a shame I had to go to bed during the day!

The graveyard shift is a truly anti social one and I’m really not too sure I’m suited to it. Anti social can come pretty natural to myself, always been a bit of a loner and content with my own company but there does come times when you crave human company. What does not come naturally is being awake during the night and asleep during the day, it also seems to get harder as I get older. I used to manage to keep going during the day and only crash out on the days when the weather was so atrocious you were pleased to crawl into your bed, I find it ain’t as easy to burn the candle at both ends anymore – quite frustrating really!

So why do nights? There are plenty of day lambings available.

I’ve already stated that I’m naturally anti social but that ain’t really the answer, the truth is I do not like shed lambings, as many shepherd will tell you ‘any fool can lamb in a shed’. There are many reasons I don’t like shed lambing, it isn’t natural for the sheep for one, many of them wouldn’t lamb during the hours of darkening anyhow, their natural instinct is to wait until first light so that by the coming night fall their lambs will be footed, sucked and safer from predators. However, in a shed underneath artificial light the sheep will continue to lamb, just as hens will lay throughout the dark winter days if their henhouses are lit – same thing.

The biggest drawback with having sheep housed is they are far too accessible. Far too often they are not given enough time to lamb. The natural process is speeded up by someone pouncing on them and pulling the lambs out, the sheep is then dragged to a small pen and her wet lambs put in beside her. Having done any amount of day lambings I eventually opted for doing nights, I got sick and tired of over enthusiastic staff and farmers needing to be ‘on the ball’ and forever lambing the sheep. I have often said and heard many others say the same, that anyone allowed to lamb in a shed ought to have lambed on the hill first, they would use their heads rather than their brawn and allow nature more time. At night I am able to give the sheep the time they need without interference from outside influences, therefore whether nights and I are compatible or not that is the way it will go for the time being.

Don’t get me wrong, not every farm follows the principles of pounce and pull but I personally have worked on too many that have. There is a need to assist on occasions, even I have to pounce and assist a ewe but I prefer to wait until she needs that assistance, give her time and see what the outcome is likely to be rather than interfere prematurely.

In actual fact there seems to be a higher percentage of sheep requiring assistance when they are lambing in a shed than if they were to lamb outdoors. The sheep on this farm are fortunate in that they get out during the day to stretch their legs, many are housed 24/7. Every time a sheep has to be caught up it upskittles (upsets) the rest, they can all get chased around a bit and knocked around by one another, there can often be some right peculiar mal presentation of lambs amongst those which are lambed in a shed.

There is one positive with lambing in sheds, anyone who gets two or three years under their belts lambing large numbers of sheep (1,000+) in sheds will have a pretty good grounding of just about everything that can go wrong.

The other half was once brave enough to stand in and be my ‘student’ on a farm many years ago. A farm I had lambed on for many years which always managed to employ veterinary students for the duration of the lambing found they couldn’t acquire any students on this particular year and so the other half stepped in. There were 1,500 – 2,000 sheep went through the shed in a span of three and a half weeks, we often had upwards of a hundred sheep a night lambed although fortunately there were some quieter nights.

He says himself he learnt a hell of a lot, experienced more that many wouldn’t experience over many years, he also said he’d been there, done it, got the T shirt and had no intention of doing it again! To my amazement he also admitted that it was hard work........ did he think I went to work every night to sleep in the straw??

Anyhow, the lambing has gone relatively well so far, unfortunately there have now been five kebs (premature/aborted) lambs out on the hill, three of these I have been able to rectify and the ewes are running around with a lamb at foot and as proud as punch in the process. I’m looking forward to the hill lambing starting, I look forward to heading out there every morning and checking all is well.

The dogs and I take a wander in the afternoons or evening, fresh air after I’ve been crashed out in bed and they’ve been barred up in the kennel. Spring is springing. We often head down the burn, I like water, it is tranquil and relaxing. To date I haven’t seen hide nor hair of the dipper, nor have I had the woodpecker tapping on the telegraph pole beside the cottage. I have seen celandines, primroses and a tatty old hawthorn coming into leaf. Oystercatchers and a pair of mallard spotted on the burn. Rooks have been mobbing a pair of buzzards, true aerial combat – quite a sight. I saw the kestrel for the first time today. The other morning I saw three roe deer out on the hill – is it possible they could be the same three that have been out on the hill the last few years? Badgers have been out and about at night and I have had my usual conversation with a tawny owl during the hours of darkness. Bats are to be seen on darkening and daybreak. Grey squirrels have been seen although I’d prefer they’d be reds. Jackdaws are nesting in the eaves of the lambing shed, their twigs making a mess on the strawed floor of the shed. Ravens and crows aren’t too pleasing a sight, they can be hard on lambs, having a fetish for eyes and tongues, however two ravens gave a tremendous aerial display one day, I’m presuming it had something to do with courtship. Then there were the hares one morning, which I’ve never seen since, but did enjoy the spectacle whilst it lasted.

The countryside is coming to life and it is a pleasure to see.

I have to say I don't know whether I have ever seen quite so much grass at this time of the year, we are definitely having an early spring and it is appreciated.

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