Hill Farming, Sheep

Mother Nature’s Own Agenda!

“She’s got rid of those breeding ewes — we won’t have to look at any more pictures of slimy new lambs”

Not so! As with all things in the Garden of Eden — Mother Nature will have her way! The young lady who now uses our land to graze her virginal, adolescent ewes is learning just how fragile is ovine virginity!

Happy Accident 1 and 2, discovered on Wednesday:

They were left in peace in our top field and the others brought down to the fields around the house, I was out. The first thing I knew about what was going on was when I was eating my lunch in the sunshine and heard a strange baa — like a child imitating a sheep — I went to investigate and found a bewildered young ewe with tummy ache. But something was wrong — didn’t I say that anything that could go wrong would go wrong? It’s the 1st rule of rearing anything! She was agitated, as well she might be, and not progressing in her labour. I tried to catch her which only reminded me why I had decided to stop lambing in the first place. I phoned the shepherd, who phoned her dad, who borrowed her dog, who came and caught the ewe.

The dog drove the ewe into the pen and Dad and I extracted a very shocked large and strangely khaki lamb with a swollen head and enlarged tongue and initial disinclination to breath but with encouragement she did (Mother Nature was not about to be out-done at this stage!)

Happy Accident no 3 a few hours later –still a bit wobbly — mother much calmer.

After her day job, the shepherd arrived to check the rest — two more wayward adolescents were identified, to be collected tomorrow and taken to the main farm. But guess what?

What’s this? Happy Accident no 4!

Now I’m going out to check for No 5!

What a treat it is for me to have some lambs to fuss over! But what strikes me most is how big and healthy these lambs are without all the extra food and care that would normally have been lavished upon them.

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animal psychology, Hill Farming, Lambing

Snatched within minutes of birth!

What a tragedy when a baby is taken from its mother…  But spare a thought for the perpetrator — sometimes they are victims too!

Two new lambs are born before dawn, they are lying with their new mother under the hedge — both healthy.  Above the hedge I spot another ewe so, before marking the new lambs, I go to check the other ewe.  She is licking the ground and chewing on membranes in the grass; from her rear dangles other membranes and her large udder is streaked with blood — she has obviously just given birth, but there were no lambs.

I hunt up and down behind the hedge — there is no trace. Several neighbours have been troubled by a predator this year.

Damn!  Damn!  I should have been up earlier — That damned fox has had a new born lamb…

Unless…  Something in the manner of the ewe with the two lambs, below the hedge, had not been quite right — as I approached her she had looked excited, not wary, she had given me that Oh-good-time-for-breakfast-look.  Sheep that have just delivered usually have more on their minds.

I rapidly fashion a pen out of hurdles and lift the new lambs into it then let the new mother in and examine her pristine rear — it is clean and dry, she has stolen these lambs.  More accurately she has kindly fostered them after they rolled through the hedge, probably because of over-enthusiastic cleaning by their old mum.

I return the lambs to number 1 mum who looks doubtful.  She smells the first lamb and nuzzles it but pushes the other gently  away, it rolls through the hole in the hedge and bleats.  Foster mother screams from the pen and tries to jump out, collapsing the whole caboodle.  The lamb rushes to her and suckles.

Plan B — I carry the lamb down the not inconsiderable hill (up and down which I have now been running for some time) The foster ewe follows me complaining and I shut her in a more substantial pen, then re-patriate the lamb, which is surprisingly vigorous, with its real mother.  ‘Not mine!’ says the real mother and knocks it over.

‘Yes, it is.’

‘No it isn’t  — look!’ she’s pushed it through the hedge and it’s running amok, bleating and several of the other ewes are coming up to investigate, including Number 19 who was involved in a custody battle a couple of years ago.

‘I think it might be mine,’ says Number 19,’ I do vaguely remember giving birth,’ she sniffs it, ‘Yes! It’s definitely mine!’

That’s it!  I’ve had enough — I bundle the troublesome lamb over the fence, reunite it with it’s real mother and sister and then we painstakingly  walk them, with much arguing and to-ing and fro-ing, the long way round to the barn where I shut up mother and both lambs in a small pen.

After such a long and tiresome walk so soon after giving birth on the frosty hillside where it is now raining, the sight of a warm, dry pen and a bucket of feed persuades the mother to concede, ‘Alright they both might be mine, but I still don’t like the look of that big one very much!’

She has now fed both lambs and Alan has bought me a cup of coffee, but still the cries of injustice from the kind, obliging foster mum can be heard — I hope she has her own lambs soon.

And to reassure any farmers reading this, just to be absolutely sure, I go and find the placentas and they were both above the hedge.

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The following morning things are not looking good.  The mother is butting the larger lamb who is starting to look wary of her.

‘Smell her,’ says the mother, she’s not mine!’

I sniff  her — she smell terrible, like a dog that’s rolled in rotting fox-pooh.  I sniff the little one — she smell all lamby and nice.

So, while waiting for a friend to bring us a lamb-adopter, I wash the offensive creature with clean warm water — she doesn’t like it much, then I dry her with kitchen towel and finish her off with her sister’s woolly back, then we exercise the human lamb-adopter who has come to investigate — he holds the ewe and the big hungry lamb has a feed and we squirt her with milk.  The mother is sniffing them both now and looking confused — hopefully she can’t count.  We withdraw and hope for the best.

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Hill Farming, Humour

Nature’s scam

Don’t be taken in – it’s a scam – Mother Nature’s attempt at PR!

Daffodils have absolutely nothing to do with the Spring –

they are harbingers of disappointment – raisers of false hope!

At least, that’s what they are in Wales.

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They have been out for two weeks and our hill is overflowing –

not with the sound of lambs and birdsong –

but with gurgling springs – excess ground-water spewing out of rabbit holes –

and the baas of disgruntled sheep, pained by the muscular effort of holding back the inevitable.

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They watch the weather forecast on the wide screen telly, through the picture window,

but anyway they know about these things and no one wants to drop a new born babe –

plop, into a puddle – so they are holding on until there’s a break in the cloud.

And meanwhile they blame me, and by the way, this hay is damp.

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Our single antediluvian lamb is chasing chickens now.

Ducks, Splish and Splosh (named Flip and Flop in dryer times) look on and say,

‘Well what do you expect – laying lamb-shaped, wooly eggs that are not waterproof!  This mud is delicious,’ and off they dibble-dabble.

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Hill Farming, Lambing

In Praise of Older Females

Last year she had her 8th and 9th lamb, both large (10lb and 11lb).  She is now 8years old and last year I wrote in my lambing record, after I’d helped her lamb in the open, ‘No fuss’.

My shepherding friends sing the praises of a young flock and tell me to cull the old ewes but that doesn’t seem fair if they are healthy and productive and easy to handle so I stick to my guns.

Today was Number Thirty’s due date and, sure enough, she took herself off after lunch to the top of an otherwise empty field but, oddly, she was making a lot of noise — not a labour type baa (some of them are quite noisy, just like some women, but she isn’t usually one of those).  Nor was it a bubbly, talking to a lamb baa — it was a loud calling baa (like when one sheep has crossed the stream and calls to the others to come too.

I went up and sat in the sunshine on the bank and she quietened.  After 20 minutes or so I thought I’d go and get the evening feeds ready but as I walked down the hill she started calling again so I went back, and she stopped.  It seemed she wanted me there — don’t ever tell me sheep aren’t intelligent.

She laboured on but things did not seem to be progressing as they should despite strong and prolonged contractions.  Alan came and took one look and went off to put on his waterproof trousers.

I caught her during a contraction and could feel the two front feet and the muzzle with a swollen protruding tongue, the lamb was moving but huge and it didn’t want to budge.

Alan got back and we caught her again easily and this time he held her and I heaved, holding so tight to the hooves that I thought I might damage them and easing the head out.  The feet kept slipping from my grasp and I had forgotten to bring a towel.  I pulled off my T-shirt and dried the legs with it then used it to hold them.  She contracted, Alan urged her on, I pulled with all my might and at last could feel it coming — the legs extended, the head was free and shoulders were born and with a slither and a gush of orange, meconium stained liquor the mighty leviathan arrived – one ear up and one ear down but breathing.

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I laid it down by its mother’s nose and though prostrate with exhaustion and still will an Alan around her neck, she licked its muzzle and it gave a little bleat and she gave her bubbly baa.

Half an hour later Alan had gone to the pub and the  lamb was all spruced up and had had a feed and Number Thirty was as lively as anything and in no hurry to re-establish the normal distance between the species.  She had her supper while I (in a clean top) weighed the monster — 14 lb.

We sat for a while on the steep bank — ewe, lamb and shepherd. Two farm trucks came down the lane which is on the other side of the little valley overlooking our field.  The first flashed its lights and the second honked its horn and wound down the window and waved. I don’t know who they were but they were acknowledging a special moment that they recognised.

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Lesson learned: next year I really must get them scanned so as not to overfeed the singletons.

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Hill Farming, Lambing

Pink Balloon but No Celebration.

Lamb Friday -- all white and fluffy now.

Lamb Friday — all white and fluffy now.

Even in the Welsh Hills fewer and fewer farmers lamb out in the fields — most do it in the shelter and warmth of large sheds with pens and good lighting and enough sheep to make it worth while and to have someone there day and night.

We are an anachronism — I stumble around our fields with torch or hurricane lamp listening to the sounds of the night — for the soft bubbly baa of a ewe calling to her new-born lamb or the hysterical rhythmic baaing of a frightened young ewe, lambing for the first time.  By and large our sheep do not lamb in the hours of darkness — one of the advantages of not having the lights on all the time — their circadian rhythms are undisturbed, even if ours are not.  Our lambs usually arrive at first light.

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Last night, though, was an exception.  It was clear and frosty and there was a huge bright full-moon casting weird shadows over a black and white world.  I was woken by a bleat at half past one in the morning and went to investigate.

Up in the corner of our steep field was one of our first-time ewes running after two lively new-born lambs.  I’d been worried about her as she had been large and uncomfortable and had had a large swollen udder — it was bare of wool and oedematous so that it looked  translucent, like a large pink balloon.  This should have made more of an impression on me.

Anyway I was very relieved to find that she had delivered without any trouble and that the lambs were so lively and went back to bed…  Mistake!

At dawn Alan counted the sheep and called me — only one lamb at foot and something white on the ground.

Sure enough there was a dead lamb on the ground but the young ewe still had her two lambs, one was tucked up behind her.

After failed attempts to resuscitate the perfect, cold, dead ram-lamb, we had a roll call and tail inspection of the other ewes in the field — no one had any signs of having delivered a lamb.

The two lambs born in the night were exploring their leafy environment and I was pondering on missed opportunities and lessons to be learned:

1.  Be particularly vigilant on bright moonlit nights when the light level is high and when all night can seem like just before dawn.

2.  An udder like a pink balloon may herald triplets (quite rare in our breed).

3.  Remember to wait a while after delivery as it’s the last, often smallest, lamb that slips out unnoticed or sometimes just rolls off down the hill and gets overlooked when the ewe has so much new to deal with.

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Ecology, Hill Farming

The Midwife has arrived…

in her black and white uniform.

SONY DSCWho called her?  Nobody knows.  But she knows: she knows exactly when every baby is due and she moves in a day or so before to watch over the mother.

Unlike her human counterpart she has no concern for the mother, she is here to collect the placenta and the membranes.  There’ll be no rotting flesh on our fields to attract predators.  All will be whisked away by the midwife bird.

She, or he, has been working up the valley following the wave of lambing which creeps up with the warming air and the growth of the grass.  The first sign  of her presence is a smear of wool on the field;  she has taken the liberty of pulling some wool from a ewe’s back to line her own nest and leaves a little on the grass, alarming as she chose the wool marked with red marker — does the colour of blood attracts her?

Magpies are hated by most farmers because of their partiality to another delicacy: they will peck the eyes from dead sheep and sometimes from not-quite-dead sheep and even from the head of a partially born lamb.

This upsets farmers (not surprisingly) but the flash of this bold and watchful bird will often alert him to a miscarriage, premature lambing or a fallen ewe and you can see magpies on occasions, perched on the back of a sheep, patiently picking out maggots from soiled wool which, if left, would attack the skin and eat into the sheep’s flesh causing rapid septicaemia from fly-strike and death if untreated.

Magpie looking for parasites and maggots

Magpie looking for parasites and maggots

The midwife bird is here to warn you that lambing is nigh — ovine tempers are frayed but the fields are drying out nicely so

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brace yourselves for an avalanche of lambs.

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Hill Farming, Sheep

Not a Dying Day

sheltering under the trees

sheltering under the trees

Torrential rain all night — sodden ground but not all that cold — not good lambing weather but ‘not a dying day’ the farmer said as we both looked out across the valley and, for a fleeting moment, the sun came out.

Disgruntled of Mid-Wales -- Horizontal ears -- Aby is not one to hide her emotions

Disgruntled of Mid-Wales — Horizontal ears — Aby is not one to hide her emotions

That was what we needed to hear.

Later in the day the rain abated and someone was baa-ing loudly up by the hedge.  Like humans some of our ewes labour stoically in silence, perhaps with the occasional muted grunt at the very end but some labour vociferously.  Number Twelve is a pretty young ewe, lively and highly strung, she shouts in labour.  Today she shouted that she was at the end of the first stage and I ran out with my binoculars to supervise — that is our arrangement.

They lamb out of doors but not in the laissez-faire, survival-of-the-fitest sense.  We watch and only intervene if they need it and if they need it there seems no problem in them accepting it — I guess it’s all in the timing but our days of chasing the two-headed sheep are hopefully over — that’s a sheep with its own head one end and its lamb’s head sticking out the other.

Ovine obstetrics makes me think of childbirth before the days of modern medicine when more deaths were caused by officious intervention (with dirty hands) than from the complications of birth.  We watch and the more we watch the better we grasp what is normal and what is usual for our individual animals and we do it quietly and from a distance.  Just like humans,  a relaxed and confident mother is the key to a happy outcome.

Here she is, first lamb -- shot from the cannon of her healthy young mother midst  a salvo of baa-ing

Here she is, first lamb — shot from the cannon of her healthy young mother midst a salvo of baas.

Next came our friendliest ewe — I don’t know why she is so tame — she’s never been singled out for special treatment — not bottle fed and never ill.  She took herself off into the hedge, as they do, and silently produced a male lamb.

Friendly Sheep has an immense fleece (descendent of Square Sheep) and has thick wool all over her udders — she is perfectly adapted for life in a testing climate but her hirsutism presents a problem for her lamb — lambs are drawn to the teat by its smell and its heat — insulated teats are hard to find.

In the midst of this hunt while I am considering how to wax a sheep’ udder (ouch!) something else happens — something falls to the ground and rolls down the hill — it is a second lamb and the mother is completely unaware of it.  When it bleats she looks up for a moment then goes back to nosing her first.  Second Lamb shakes his nose free from the membranes with an extravagant gesture and bleats again — no response.

I pick up the lamb and clean its face with my hand then give it to the mother who looks pleasantly surprised and interested and she starts to lick it while I grab Number One Lamb and go hunting the teat.  I plug it in and beat a retreat.

Cleaning Second Lamb

Cleaning Second Lamb

By 10 o’clock at night, Second Lamb is teetering about the hillside, meters from its mum, bleating weakly.  I take it to its mother, ‘Not mine,’ she baas and gives it a gentle butt, then a not so gentle butt.

I try again, ‘Not mine — smell it!’

I do , it smells terrible, like something a dog might roll in which is what it must have done on another roll down the hill..

When my husband gets home from his Domino match, dropped off by a farmer friend he says to the friend, ‘Oh God — you know what’ll happen next — it’ll be in our wet-room.’

‘It is already!’

I tell him that I have prepared a pen in the shed and the friend offers us an adopter — a sort of anti-butting crate.  The next hour is spent slippy-sliding up and down the sodden hillside in the rain with Number One Lamb bleating in a bucket and Friendly Sheep following then panicking and running back up the field to something she couldn’t quite remember.

The other sheep are baaing their conflicting advice.  Eventually our old cade lamb, Aby, comes to the rescue and walks with us, Friendly Sheep was reassured and follows to the pen in the barn where we re-unite her with Second Lamb having warmed and dried it and given it a bottle of colostrum and washed its under the tap, dried it with hay and rubbed it on its big brother so that it smells more-or-less right.

Friendly Sheep settles immediately in the security of the shed, knows she has two lambs though she can’t count and is letting the now vigorous second lamb suckle.

Next morning they are a picture of domestic harmony.

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