Lambing is a bit like Marmite for me – March comes round and the thought of it looming across the hill makes me shudder. Sleep deprivation, physically demanding, painful, stressful and all-consuming. At least, that’s what I’m thinking about before we start – and then the first few lambs start to arrive, the adrenalin kicks in……… And I love it!
We have just finished setting up the lambing shed, the ewes are in the big pens, silage in front of them and I survey with a sense of satisfaction that all’s well. There are the usual busy comings-and-goings, the sound of clumsy movement, horns knocking on gates and constant animal chewing. The smell of silage and clean, dry straw helps to create a sense of calm and that lovely, contended homely-feel that everything is as it should be.
I am at that stage in my career now when, on walking into the lambing shed, my eyes, ears and mind sharpen and begin to work like a special-forces soldier on operational duties. In fact, before I’m even in the shed my ears are trained for tell-tale sounds. It could be the deep heaving or loud roaring of a ewe in the full throw of final stage labour. It could be the gentle nickering of a ewe as she cleans a new born lamb.
Of course, it could be the new born lambs panicked and incessant bleating that they should be making when they are unceremoniously dumped from the womb onto a straw bed. That noise is designed to cause instant reaction, same as a new born baby. Its nature’s way of creating urgency in the mother so she attends to her lamb immediately. The sooner the wee belly is full of colostrum the better chance of survival the lamb has. But it still makes me anxious when I hear it. Mother nature is damned good at getting what she sets out to achieve.
Then there is the plaintive bleat of a hungry lamb that’s not getting milk – like a baby again, each sound has its own very distinctive message. This is the one though that makes my heart sink. I hate the thought of anything being hungry… That and the small matter that is this. Bottle feeding lambs is not my favourite job.
All of these sounds have been deciphered in a matter of seconds, so as soon as I walk in the shed myeyes are already scanning the pens to find the source of the most urgent sound. As I walk up through the shed, I mentally note where things are happening and I’ll prioritise as I go. Any life threatening things I see are dealt with immediately, otherwise everything is left where it is until I’ve viewed all of the pens in the shed. Once that’s done, I relax and settle into the job of dealing with the new lambs. All of this will take no longer than 10 minutes, and I’ll know what we have.
However, it’s not always been this comfortable.
I had a wry smile to myself after I had completed the first round of the first morning that the ewes were shedded. I’ve been thinking about writing this blog and I suddenly remembered my very first experience of lambing as an 18 year old laddie working for George Sinclair at Glendevon Farm. George was a livestock dealer rather than a farmer and he bought large numbers of all kinds of sheep. He had bought a cut of in lamb ewes with the idea of selling them before lambing started. However, they were never sold and I was given the huge (at least in my mind) responsibility of “lambing them”.
There were only about 15 of them, but here I was. Jim Fairlie. And I was going to do a proper lambing. Even saying the phrase, “Aye, I’m lambing just now.” gave me a feeling of substance. I knew then that what I was doing mattered. For 18 year old me it was a bit mysterious and most importantly, it proved that I was truly a shepherd and somehow more connected to nature than everyone else at home. (You’ll remember my tounie / country divide from part one of The Perth Farmers’ Market Blogs).
So when George said to me I should go and check the lambing ewes, I took off with a strident determination that I was going to be the epitome of shepherding brilliance. I arrived at the shed where the ewes were lambing and sure enough, a ewe was pacing around and baahing anxiously. Her water bag was showing, and I’d been told this was a sure sign of an imminent arrival. I had no idea how long this would take, because in typical farming vernacular I was told it would be as long as it took. You just had to know when something was wrong and when the ewe needed help. No way was something going to go wrong on my watch, so I sat myself down in the straw to await the magical moment when I would witness my first lambs being born.
It took longer than I thought, and when I woke up, her lambs were suckling noisily and George was chuckling quietly to himself. Not the start of my shepherding career I envisaged.
Despite my having to endure the considerable Micky taking from the rest of the staff at the time, I was undeterred. Sheep farming was in me and it wouldn’t matter what I did, where I ended up, it would always be in me. I remember some years later my sheep farmer mentor saying “Laddie, there will always be sheep that get away from you, but you’ll never get away from sheep.”
And so it has been.
It does come at a cost and for me that has always been time with my family. Our youngest was born in mid March and after being present for her birth I didn’t see her for another 3 days. Even then it was only for half an hour as the lambing shed beckoned. It was like that for the next 2 months – the first 8 weeks of my daughter’s life. However, that was made up for later because she grew to be the best wee helper I’ve ever had.
It has almost gone full circle though. I say that because one of the things I had in years gone by that I don’t have as much now, is the company of my daughter Caitlin. As I said, she was born at lambing time so perhaps it’s only natural that as a child she adored lambing. And I adored the fact that I got her all to myself. I loved teaching her things but also listening to what she observed for herself. She has the natural instinct of someone who is very much at home with animals. Whether it’s in the shed feeding pet lambs (all of which were named, I’ve lost count of how many she called “survivor”) or out in the fields, she could spot signs very quickly. Best of all though, I loved having her company. I know she got a lot out of it as well, the good and the bad lessons from dealing with new life, and inevitable death on a daily basis for 10 weeks. And she got to spend time with her Dad. She’s just turned 18, and very soon will be off to Uni, busy with her own life. Like I said, full circle.
So as I stand gazing over a settled shed full of pregnant sheep feeding quietly on their silage – to be fair I’ve gone from 15 at that first lambing to 2000 – I feel quite emotional and I have to give myself a wee shake before bracing for the storm ahead.
And so It begins.