We write monthly for the magazine Bridport Times. To see this article as originally published, view the pages on Issue.
For us April is all about lambing, about new lives blinking at the world for the first time, learning to stand and to skip and taking joy in exploring it all.
We lamb in Spring to coincide with when the grass is rich and growing most strongly. Many farmers organise the date of their lambing for the winter and have the ewes indoors when they lamb. This is because there is a price premium for lamb ready for the Easter market, and also because being indoors makes it easier to keep an eye on any ewes that might need help. Indeed, we used to do this ourselves, starting lambing in January, taking shifts in the lambing barn to ensure that help was on hand if it was needed 24/7. But years ago we decided to change to April, using the warmer weather, the spring grass and longer days to lamb out of doors as deer and many other animals naturally do – and we’ve never looked back.
We like it because the ewes are able to first grow their lambs and then nurse them from fresh grass, and being outside means they’re more active, free from disease, able to socialise freely and choose their food from the herb rich pasture. We’ve found that as the ewes haven’t been confined for the final weeks of pregnancy they are fit and just get on with giving birth and then feeding their lambs. Usually a ewe will anticipate the birth and choose herself a place in the field, maybe away from the flock, with shelter from the wind or just with a clear view. Here she will deliver her lambs and stay within a few yards for a whole day, bonding with them and resting while they learn to suckle. Still, letting go of the habit of interfering was a hard part of the change. Lambing now feels more like story-book shepherding, quietly walking amongst the settled ewes and reminding yourself that checking individuals and watching over the flock is actually proper work. Our traditional breeds are excellent mothers, and rarely need help. Nonetheless, we need to be watchful and there are times when we do need to be ready to intervene; our experience of more intensive indoor lambing has taught us how to spot this in good time.
One risk of outdoor lambing is Mr. Fox: the farm is a haven for wildlife of all sorts, and when you make space for hares, dormice, and myriad hedgerow birds you also support the predators: barn owls, buzzards and foxes. One particularly bad year we lost a lamb every night for a short time. Not a poor one but a well grown healthy one. Some days we’d find a leg or a head, rubbing in our distress at what was happening. We tried and failed to catch the fox, though we thought it likely it was a vixen feeding cubs. Eventually, we used an age-old solution. We created a small enclosure, a fold, and brought the ewes and lambs into it every evening.
Such a densely bunched flock of sheep is very hard for foxes to tackle and I’d imagine it seems to them very intimidating too. Many people think sheep are stupid: we don’t. They are good at what they should be good at; ewes are consummate mothers. We all know how protective mothers can be, and sheep mothers are no exception. While she will be easily herded by the sheep dogs for most of the year, until they’re old enough to run with her away from danger a ewe will resolutely stand her ground, stamping her hoof in defence of her offspring. It’s always gratifying to see a protective ewe. Facing something stronger and apparently much more dangerous with a wild courage is justified by events: the dogs take the message and just slink away.
Leila recalls: “My childhood was filled with putting on the biggest coat I could find, putting a torch in my pocket, and stepping out into the dusk with my brothers and parents, running around the edges of the field, watching the lambs run, following their mothers and matching the ewes with their lambs as we rounded them up to take them into the night enclosure. Sometimes, if I were quick, I would manage to pick up a lamb and have the pleasure of carrying it all the way back up the hill to reunite it with its mother. And at dawn the following day, before the school bus arrived, I would have the opposite pleasure of letting them out of their enclosure to roam and graze on the fresh grass.”
It’s not all fun and games though, and you have to be on the lookout for any lamb that might not be suckling well or is looking less than its usual bouncy self. Then you find out quite how useful the old shepherd crook is in giving you that little bit of extra reach to catch a lamb, and you learn how wily the older breeds can be. The lambs get fast quickly! There are times when we have to fall back on the obvious truth that if you can’t catch the patient, it isn’t very ill.
As the lambs get older they venture further from the safety of their mothers, discovering that the world is actually quite big, and finding new places to explore and things to do. Eventually they gravitate into adorable gangs of twenty or thirty adolescents finding out how fast they can run and how high they can jump and skip as they careen from one side of the field to the other, always looking surprised as they grind to a sudden stop before racing back again to tell mum all about it and having a quick suck.
Lambing is part of the wonder of spring and however exhausted we may be the magic never