Lambing

There’s a thread over at Tim Worstall’s about sheep breeding, and I’ve thrown in my contribution as usual. The thing is, I know a bit about this (I grew up in Wales, after all) and this isn’t the first time I’ve described it. So just for the hell of it I’ll turn it into a blog post.

Firstly, to get sheep to breed you need both ewes and rams. With me so far? Good. A flock of a hundred or so ewes can be serviced by two or three rams, no bother. If you ever see a ram you’ll notice it has enormous bollocks for such a small animal. There are reasons for this. Normally you’d keep the ewes in one field and the rams in another waaaaaaaaay over the other side of the farm, otherwise your lambing season is going to be somewhat lengthy. When the right time of year comes around (autumn, I think) you send the rams in and they get to work. But before you do that you strap a large, rectangular crayon to their chests using a nylon harness, with each ram getting a different colour. This is for keeping score. When the ram mounts a ewe and starts humping the crayon leaves a mark on her back. At the end of a few weeks the farmer can see which sheep have been humped and which remain un-humped, and see which ram has been putting in the hard yards and which has been loafing under a tree snoozing. If a ram isn’t pulling his weight, chances are he’ll be replaced for the next season with one a little more enthusiastic. So if ever you wake up captured by aliens with an odd crayon strapped to your belly, you’ll have an idea what is expected of you to survive.

At some point later on, I forget when, the farmer may enlist the services of a guy who, for a per-sheep fee, uses one of those ultrasound machines you find in antenatal wards to determine how many lambs are inside each ewe. I’ve watched somebody do this and how he can determine anything from the grey mess that appears on the screen is beyond me, but we wrote down his predictions against the tag number of each ewe and his predictions were bang on. At this point the farmer will be paying close attention to which ewes are not “with lamb” and what colour mark is on their back. If too many ewes with red crayon marks are not carrying lambs, then that particular ram is out of a job for next season. If all the ewes with a red mark are carrying lambs except one or two, then those ewes might be barren. We’ll see next year.

Lambing season starts sometime in spring and you prepare a lambing shed which is warm, dry, and divided into pens. You keep your flock in a field nearby and when any is showing signs of imminent birthing (I have no idea what the more subtle signs are, but forelegs sticking out the back of a ewe is not unheard of) you catch them using a pickup truck and a young, fit, and slightly idiotic local boy who for some reason likes farms and get them into the lambing shed. You then wait for them to give birth, and this can take a while so sometimes the shed is rigged up to CCTV and fed back to the farmhouse. I should point out that all of this is what went on back in the early-mid 1990s, so perhaps things have moved on now and there is an iPhone app for all this. Anyway, when a ewe starts to give birth it usually needs human help.

This is particularly the case with multiple births: most ewes carry two lambs, three is common, four less common, and occasionally five. Single lambs are common enough but a little disappointing from the point of view of the farmer. Ewes often struggle to give birth and so somebody must assist by grabbing hold of the protruding forelegs and giving them a yank. If the lamb is facing the wrong way around then somebody must roll up their sleeve, wash their arm in soapy water up the elbow, reach in, grab the legs, and yank it out. I have never done this myself but have held the animal when this was being done many times, and I was about 12 or 13 years old at the time. No city boy, me.

Sometimes when you pull a lamb out it is not breathing, and you need to try to revive it. First you tip its head back and clear its airway of mucus, and then you stick a piece of straw up its nostril. This will sometimes cause it to sneeze and it will start breathing. If that doesn’t work you grab it by its hind legs and swing it in an arc (taking care not to smack its head against a wall or something) so that its head is flung back and air forced into the airway. I swear I’m not making this up, but don’t take this as a manual for what you should do: ask a vet. You do that a few times and then massage its heart. Sometimes it will cough into life, other times not. If not, you get the corpse away from the mother ASAP: you want her attention focused on the lambs that survived.

Even distribution of the lambs is important. A ewe may feel overwhelmed by more than two or three lambs and you’ll notice straight away if one is lacking attention. If so it stands a high risk of being abandoned, and ewes are prone to lying on top of their unwanted young and smothering them. So any that is looking like an outcast is taken away and an attempt is made to wean it onto a mother with only one lamb of her own. This is done by taking the afterbirth of the adopted mother and wrapping it around the foster lamb immediately after she has given birth in the hope that she will smell it and be tricked into thinking it is one of her own. This works surprisingly often and the lamb is adopted and looked after. If she doesn’t fall for it then you have an orphaned lamb, which is immediately thrown to a pack of hungry dogs you keep outside just for this purpose. Nobody has time or patience for orphaned lambs.

I’m kidding, you don’t do that. The orphaned lambs – nicknamed “mollies” on the farm I used to play around on – are kept in a separate pen under a strong heat lamp, and cared for by hand. If you have a farm dog that is female, chances are her mothering instincts will kick in and she’ll lie in beside them. When kids come around wanting to see the lambs, these are the ones you show them because there are no protective mothers and they are used to human contact. You might have to wrap them in towels for a while, and two or three times a day you feed them warm milk from a bottle of the exact type you use on a baby. These things are as cute as you can imagine and feeding them is a lot of fun with lots of “Aaaw!” sounds being made. You can put milk on your fingers and get them to suck so hard you can almost lift them off the ground (they don’t have teeth yet), and they are still so small you can pick one up in each hand easily. They can stand up within about an hour of being born, but they are very unsteady on their feet at the beginning. This only makes them cuter.

When the weather gets warmer and the lambs a bit stronger, they’re kicked out into the field where you see them playing and my experience with lambs converges with that of everyone else. I did a lot of this sort of stuff when I was a kid, and you don’t forget it.

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23 thoughts on “Lambing

  1. “So if ever you wake up captured by aliens with an odd crayon strapped to your belly, you’ll have an idea what is expected of you to survive.”

    Sir, you have just been logged as my useful quote of the week. Well done.

    In other sheep news, I went out with a girl once who spent some time on a sheep farm. As her then husband was away a lot, she looked after the animals herself. She was pretty strong, as you might expect, but I soon find that driving with her in the Peak district (car driving, not herding) she would shout that she had seen a sheep on its back and jump out of the car to go and turn it over. Apparently on her Devon farm sheep would sometimes get stuck on their back — she said they liked to rub their wool on something hard, which stays with me still as it were — but not have the wit or momentum to turn themselves over enough to get to their feet.

  2. Sir, you have just been logged as my useful quote of the week. Well done.

    I see my blog as part entertainment, part public service.

  3. Further: “The orphaned lambs – nicknamed “mollies” on the farm I used to play around on”

    I was at a garden centre last year looking at a stone sheep (decoration only) and a farmer started talking to me about sheep in South Yorkshire. Apparently he gets a lot of requests each year for what he called “K” (or “Kay”) lambs, which were lambs not wanted by their mother and don’t get homes. People stop by his farm in the spring and ask if he has anyone these orphans to sell.

    One thing he told me though that though is that only one animal death can be ignored by the law: you don’t have to inform the authorities when a horse dies. A dead lamb goes into the records just as much as an expired cow, but horses can be simply buried as the farmer wishes.

    Not sure if this is true as I am no expert in animal legislation, but I thought it interesting.

  4. It might be a new thing: I don’t remember it being a matter for the authorities when a lamb died (we once lost a sheep in the sheep-dip too, but we worked hard to save her). I’d wonder how the authorities would ever prove a lamb that dies was ever born. It sounds to me like a way of keeping people employed at the Ministry of Agriculture, something one of Blair’s goons would have dreamed up.

  5. There is almost no end to the innuendo that could be generated by selected quotes in the post and comments. But I’ll spare you.

  6. Ah, good stuff Tim, speaking as a farmer’s son.

    And that’s about the only good bit as far as sheep are concerned. Everything else sheep related is a bloody nightmare and mostly related to their suicidal nature: whatever can go wrong, they will ensure does!

    And that is without mentioning The Worst Job In The World. Dagging. Always to be undertaken on the hottest day of the year. I think it was one of the things, that and not enjoying cutting up dead calves still in their mother’s womb, that made me decide that it was going to be a City life for me.

  7. Good post.
    One thing, requiring help with lambing is very breed-dependent. You can even find stats for this. We used to keep a very traditional breed (hobby farming) where the help percentage was put at 1%.
    We found this optimistic but with over 400 ewes lambed I would put it at only 5-8%.

    I have heard both “mollie” and “kay” or “cade” used to describe orphan lambs.Sheep terms are very local and vary over even quite small distances.
    We have used the bottom aga oven (open) for the warming up/reviving of an orphan as heat lamps were too high tech for us (we were too inefficient to have them).

    @Recusant
    It is no stretch to call dagging a shit job. I wimped out a few years ago and started wearing first-aider gloves- which you can buy by the 100.

    @Watcher
    A sheep on her (usually) back is said to be “cast” and they really don’t have the right back muscles to get up again. You stand them up and hold on to them for a minute to let them get their balance back, otherwise they usually end up in the same position.
    It takes them only a few hours to die in this position as their digestive system does not work upside down (I won’t go into details, but since they are ruminants you can guess).

    A nearby sheep farmer lambs about a 1000 ewes and has a feeding machine for the orphans and excess lambs.

  8. You used to be able to buy castrating rings in the Boots in Inverness. Seems a bit sissie compared to the old bite-’em-off technique.

  9. Best lamb I ever tasted was orphaned hand reared and had a name, never went to the abattoir.

  10. Didn’t the animal rights mob get their knickers in a twist about dagging?

  11. That’s very interesting. I’ve written a bit on the Manx Loaghtan, a quite hardy breed.

  12. Forunately my half dozen sheep have never required human assistance to produce. Never had twins, and I don’t think multiple births are as common as you say. When I was in NZ percentages were around 120-130.

    Signs that they are about to pop are that suddenly an udder becomes visible – in my experience that seems to mean lambing in the next couple of days.

  13. Tim – and others – I recommend Clarts and Calamities by Henry Brewis; a highly amusing diary of a (I think) Lakeland sheep farmer, bedevilled by animals he was convinced died just to piss him off.

    My old man was a farmer but refused to have sheep on the grounds they were too stupid.

  14. “So if ever you wake up captured by aliens with an odd crayon strapped to your belly, you’ll have an idea what is expected of you to survive.”

    This is one of the best lines I have ever read in any blog, ever. Kudos.

  15. On our annual trips from Manchester to Anglesey, my father would shout, “New potatoes, peas and gravy!” at the little lambs bouncing around in the fields. Never got old.

  16. While we’re on subjects close to Boyos’ hearts (romantic or purely agricultural), thanks very much to Wales for giving England a buffer match to seal the championship.

    I reckon yesterday’s match was your World Cup final.

    I’m slightly nervous that today’s could’ve Jockistan’s.

    Fortunately, we’ve got the Bogtrotters next week and everyone can beat them. Except New Zealand and Australia.

  17. I’ve read this great post twice and been telling people around me about the crayon business and the difficult lambings. But what happens to the rams exposed as either lazy or sterile?

  18. I’ve read this great post twice and been telling people around me about the crayon business and the difficult lambings.

    Heh, thanks!

    But what happens to the rams exposed as either lazy or sterile?

    Sold for pittance to a slaughterhouse where they’d be turned into dog or cat food.

  19. Sold for pittance to a slaughterhouse where they’d be turned into dog or cat food.

    That’s what I suspected. What a pathetic ending for a proud producer like this!

  20. Alex,

    Farming is brutal at times, even in the developing world. There is very little room for sentiment.

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