The Farming Year in the Hills: Spring

March, April, May

Shepherding

Exercise conducted once or twice daily with stick and canine accompaniment, to head off those sheep who are intent on attaining the sheep's main ambition: death by unexpected causes. Often includes an attempt to pen quantities of sheep for a variety of purposes from a field which has grown larger overnight. Involves many feeble whistles (although you can whistle perfectly when the skill is not urgently needed), oaths hurled at disobedient dogs, and subsequent visits to neighbours to request a) removal of their unwanted stock, b) fences being mended. Often involves feeding - race between self with heavy bucket and many sheep with at least two horns apiece. Hence the womenfolk wearing trousers most of the time to hide their bruised legs. Also involves maintenance of gravedigging equipment prior to:

Lambing

A seasonal and near terminal disease of shepherds. Symptoms include shortness of temper and congestion of the face. Involves repeated, often blasphemous requests to the Almighty to rid the world of bereaved ewes, donnered dogs and orphaned lambs. Occasionally, a source of quiet pride... (ref)

Modern practice is to scan sheep in winter to find out what they are expecting and to feed the twin lambers in-bye, but 50 years and more ago, the fell sheep had to lamb alone and fend for herself without supplementary feeding and was unlikely to rear more than one.

Geoff Potter in 1995, grumbling about the contrariness of sheep: "The inside sheep are all having singles - big as donkeys, but singles; and the bloody fell sheep are all having twins...."

Lambing in-bye

1983 to 1995: we kept between 60 and 90 sheep as a "flying flock". We bought them in the Autumn, tupped and over wintered them; we lambed them and sold them in Spring. The lambs and ewes went together, as family units. We had to keep some back however, perhaps if a lamb had been fostered onto a ewe whose own had died, and still needed occasional supervision; or late twins, who wouldn't make up a level pen for the auction among their older cousins. In our early days on the farm we lambed outdoors and chanced the weather, but later we brought the ewes in to a shed built of corrugated iron and metal stanchions (mainly cannibalised body structures from my husband's scrapped wagon chassis!). Here we fed them on silage and meadow hay, supplemented either with "sheep nuts" or with "pot ale syrup" which was a brewing by product, sweet, rich and sticky. The ewes adored it and would lick it up endlessly from the supplementary feeders, made of a plastic container with a rotating spherical float in it. We poured the syrup onto their fodder too and all through winter they wore brown circles round their muzzles from burrowing through the hay into the bottom of the racks to lick up the dribbles. It took a storm or two of rain to remove the evidence of their greed after they were turned out.

Our lambs, on the whole, were sturdy and rewarding. Suffolk tups on Herdwick ewes produced grand lambs - often singles, which were hard work on the ewe at lambing, and often black. Later we used Texel or Charollais cross Texel tups on Swaledale or Rough ewes. We averaged "a lamb and a half" - about equal numbers of ewes with twins and singles. I didn't like triplets, so it was lucky we didn't have many; our hill sheep seldom had milk for three and the smallest would have to be taken off and hand reared, seldom being strong enough or determined enough to make a good candidate for "setting on" to another ewe.

A horsey acquaintance used to chide me for spending so much time on lambing - "they'll lamb theirsel's, ye know" - but it isn't the birth that takes the time (though lambing jumbled up twins is an art!). Keeping things going right after the lambs are born is something else:

  • feeding the families who have been turned out in the fields - where the nursing ewes, with every justification, are HUNGRY;
  • making sure the new families have not become mixed up and lambs trying to feed wrongly from someone else's irritable, conservative mother;
  • walking round the fields twice a day in case some lamb is lying in a hollow with pneumonia, unseen from the main buildings;
  • and then there's the ewe who achieves her lifetime's ambition as soon as she has lambed - she leaves you with a pair of small whickering offspring to foster-on if you're lucky to another ewe who's managed to smother her own. Every season there's a couple of "pets" to whom no ewe will give suck. They develop a remarkable attachment to your knees, because that's where you hold the milk bottle when you feed them.

You daren’t get too fond of lambs, because they are destined for the freezer; but there are few finer sights than a little flock of a fortnight old, racing each other on a warm Spring evening, their sharp little hooves drumming the drying earth with the promise of Summer to come. (ref)