I’m sitting here on the 22nd April 2013 (week four of lambing); there is a stiff breeze blowing outside but the sun is shining brightly. The TV is droning in the background and a couple of women are talking about how this day is the most popular day to start a bikini body diet. I’m receiving encouraging messages from my friends outside of the farming community – commenting on how much better things must be now that the snow has gone. Lambing in Spring 2013 might be okay afterall, eh? In my exhausted mind I get more than a little annoyed at these well meant messages. Ungrateful it may sound, and unfair it certainly is because I know that there is no reason why non-farming people would, or should, understand our situation. How can they know that the sun is not a switch that turns everything back on with immediate effect? Therefore, I need to apologise for being short in my responses and I need to warn you in advance about this blog folks. Because it’s going to make for a very honest, and potentially uncomfortable, read.
I love sharing news from the farm and telling you about my life as a hill farmer. Writing about the bits that I do that are good, the nice stories and the happy endings. I said in the last blog that I had fond memories of lambing and what the season meant to me and my family. That despite the crazy long hours, the physical and mental strain, I still love it when lambing starts.
Of course, there is the usual sleep-deprived wall that I hit – it usually kicks in at the end of week 3 or start of week 4. My secret weapon for coping has always been the ability to cat nap. I can go down in seconds, very deeply for a short period, and wake up ready to go again. It certainly doesn’t alleviate the stress of not sleeping properly for eight weeks but the end result is usually huge satisfaction at having lots of good, strong, milky lambs running in clean, fresh grass parks. The weather is usually warming up and the grass is growing nicely. Seeing this progress always gives me the momentum and stamina boost needed to start the hill Ewe lambing.
Unfortunately, this year has been the exception: my momentum and emotional stamina reached depths I’ve never before experienced.
I should probably explain how our farming system works up in the Logiealmond Hills. We have 2000 breeding ewes which are run as four different flocks. Two of these flocks – totalling approximately 800 ewes – are farmed in the lower hill and fields and the remaining 1200 are up in the high hills. On top of this we have anything between 500 and 800 of last year’s lambs (now hoggs) that we fatten up over the winter and early spring. This is done by growing turnips, kale and fodder rape on which the hoggs will graze until the grass comes in spring.
That’s the sheep – you can add to that our 70 breeding suckler cows, last years’ calves, and the calves from the year before that. It’s from this stock that I draw my fat Galloway cattle for the prime beef product that I take to markets and use for outdoor catering events.
So you can see, with all of that, there is never a dull moment and while it sounds like a lot to deal with we have developed good systems to make it manageable. However we play it though, we are always at the mercy of the weather…
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the well-documented, cold spring we have just witnessed was the start of our farming problems this year. Unfortunately, you have to go back to the late spring / early summer of 2012 and realistically, you should cite the previous horrendously wet summer as part of the problem. I won’t bore you too much with the technical side of nutrient leaching from sodden ground, other than to say that all the good stuff in the soil gets flushed into the ditches and away. However, plants and grazing animals need these nutrients to fatten and be strong for winter. When the ground loses these nutrients, we have to supplement them with bagged minerals or feeding. We also need to maximise summer grass growth in order to make hay and silage so that when there is no growth in winter, we can feed with what we’ve harvested in the summer. Hay needs sun. Without sun, you can’t make hay. The alternative is to bale the wet grass, wrap it in black plastic and make silage. Good silage requires well-sugared, nutrient rich grass. To raise the sugars in the grass we need…. Yep, you know it. Sun. So a lack of sun makes for poor quality silage and hay and essentially these become fillers rather than feeding.
As well as shocking hay and silage the 2012 fodder crop was also destroyed by the weather. When we eventually got the seed planted, the rain came back on and didn’t stop for 5 days solid. This washed the seed and fertiliser into ditches and the crop was lost. I planted 35 acres of fodder last year and ended up with roughly 2 acres of barely graze-able crop. And then there was the barley – barley that is used for animal feed compounds needs sun. Everything we do needs sun – and if we don’t get enough then the crops are sub-standard and animals begin to use the reserves they already have. When those become depleted, they rapidly lose condition.
You can see how this is going – pressure on pressure has built up on livestock over a very long period of time. So when the normal winter weather challenges kick in, the stock are already down and have a tougher job coping. We feed, we give minerals – I actually dosed all my stock with a vitamin D drench last year to combat the lack of sun. But as the saying goes, ain’t nothin’ like the real thing. We were all aware that the winter had been a tough one and had taken its toll, but there was a chink of light in early March. The temperature slowly crept up, tiny green shoots of grass appeared and it looked like we might just get the early spring everyone so desperately needed. Given that we were now at the maximum stress period for lambing and lambed sheep, new spring grass and warmth was exactly what the stock was crying out for. Unfortunately, it was as we now know, a false dawn.
The speed, ferocity and sheer volume of snow and wind was devastating. We normally calf outside because the sheds are full of young stock, and apart from anything I prefer it that way – I think the cows should be outside. However, with a North East wind that was painful to face and driving snow we turned all young cattle out and put the calving cows inside. It wasn’t enough to save the four calves that we lost but because the cows were calving so quickly we would have lost far more had we left them out in the elements.
As a result of the failed fodder crop the hoggs we are running have had to be fed on much larger volumes of concentrate and silage from November. Even pulling out all the stops, we were losing large numbers every week through a combination of biting cold and the constant liver fluke challenge. Liver fluke is a parasite that attacks grazing animals liver and they thrive in huge numbers in wet weather, so the months of rain prior to the cold had led to a perfect storm of ideal breeding conditions for fluke, which can be difficult to control. While it was bad enough for sheep that weren’t pregnant, the reality for our first flock of lambing ewes was, they simply couldn’t cope with the conditions. The fact that they are all older ewes added to their stress levels, and it knocked the feet from them.
So, what does the reality of a bad lambing and weather damage look like? I can describe it in one word. Death. And lots of it.
We started to lose twin bearing ewes first. The physical strain of dealing with the conditions at the time when the final surge of growth is going into the lambs was simply too much for them. They became too weak to get into the feed rings for the silage, would get bogged in snow or mud and couldn’t get back on their feet. Even when we took them inside they had lost so much condition we were fighting a losing battle. We treated numerous sheep for a condition known as twin lamb toxaemia but lost most of them. Then the same thing happened with the singles. We increased the amount of feed we gave them but we were then at risk of over feeding and giving them acidosis. Trying to find the balance was hellish.
The lambing started in its usual way, weaker lambs to poorer ewes born prematurely. We save some, and lose others, that, for the most part is usual. We would normally have a few ewes not producing milk at the start but as the lambing gets into full swing the few early problems are forgotten. Not this year. I said in my last blog the plaintive bleating from a hungry lamb still to this day makes my heart sink. Well by the second week of lambing, my heart was in my boots, it was relentless.
For every three ewes that coped and milked, one would fail. We bottle fed dozens of lambs, leaving them on their mothers for as long as possible hoping that the huge quantities of feeding we were giving the ewes would produce milk. As often as not, it didn’t. We were turning ewes out to the fields having been forced to lift their lambs off them in the hope that at least the ewe might live. Our lamb milking machines were running full capacity from almost day one. The ewes that did produce milk had to be put out to fields where there was no grass. Again, we piled feeding out for them to try and keep the milk flowing but with only partial success.
As the lambing progressed, the weather tightened its grip and the death toll just kept rising. Ewe and lamb carcasses were piled up on a daily basis for the knackery lorry to lift; this added to the emotional drain and pushed at the financial burden. Just to explain – EU regulation means we cannot bury our dead sheep but have to pay the Knackery to uplift them. So not only do we lose the value of stock we then have an additional cost to remove them.
Like I said earlier, even a normal lambing comes with challenges and it can be difficult to keep your spirits up, but the mounting death toll and the constant brutality of the weather was crushing our spirits daily.
The second flock started to lamb about 8 days after the first which allowed us to put all the twins inside. These ewes had been on the lower hill for most of the winter and surprisingly had coped quite well. They were younger ewes than the first lot and it looked like we just might be seeing a glimmer of hope. The younger single ewes were lambing in the hill park and it started off quite well. However, the North East wind returned and wiped out any growth that had started to come. Then the hill got another dump of snow. Lambs were being born and the ewes were abandoning them. We ploughed on, trying to find the ewe, reconciling her with her lamb and then feeding her extra to get milk going. Again, it was marginally successful.
As we were battling to keep the low ground lambing on track, there was the added concern of 1200 hill ewes on the high hills that were snow bound and still to be scanned. We hadn’t been able to get feed to them because of the drifts but thankfully the Scottish Government stepped in and provided track machines. We started to get feed blocks out and at the same time we were searching for drift buried ewes. If we couldn’t get them off the hill the next best thing was to get some kind of feed to them. It will have undoubtedly helped the singles, but lots of ewes didn’t make it. We are only now finding the casualties that were buried and the twin bearing ewes that just couldn’t cope. However, the psychological lift we got from knowing that the help was there was as big as the physical help itself.
We eventually managed to get them off the hill just before lambing was due to start, and incredibly the scanner could still detect the twins from singles despite the fact that the ewes were literally on the point of lambing. There was still no lowland grass so we ended up putting the singles back to the hill. It is now a case of fingers crossed and wait and see.
The high hill twins are just starting to lamb and already we can see that there are lots of ewes with very little milk. The death toll continues to rise, the weather is still brutal and to add insult to injury the ravens are massacring lambs and ewes at every opportunity. I mention this because it’s not something that is readily known. While ravens are recognised as incredibly effective scavengers, they are also very effective killers. The thuggery of their attacks is incredibly violent, killing lambs as they are being delivered and disemboweling ewes as they are in labour.
The long term effects of this lambing will be felt for several years to come. By the end we will have lost over 200 ewes and more lambs than I care to count. The knock on effect is – we will need to keep more female lambs back to make up for the deaths of stock ewes. And this is the year when we have fewer lambs than normal but we need to have more lambs to sell to compensate for the huge costs of winter and loss of stock.
This is a way of life to us and a life that I have always wanted. I love the countryside and the ebb and flow of nature; life and death is part of this. It doesn’t scare me or repel me – I accept it for what it is. But when you are faced with piles of dead stock, an unrelenting battering from the weather, while all the time trying to keep yourself and everyone elses morale up, it does eventually catch up with you. Forget the economic costs, the emotional toll this has taken on all of us has been brutal.
The sad thing is, we are lucky in comparison to some of the farmers in other parts of the country. Some families have lost not only most of this years crop of lambs, but the stock of ewes as well. There is no way back for them, how can they breed replacements when the stock is wiped out? 2013 is one to forget, but will live long in the memory for all the wrong reasons.