The Rural World Weblog

Rural World Weblog March 2008

March has hit us and following our calving in February, we have become obsessed with sheep!

We usually split our lambing into to two batches so that we can break ourselves in gently with about a third of the flock in February and then catch the better weather for the rest at the end of March. This year however, although the rams marked plenty of ewes during mating or ‘tupping’ with a coloured marker (raddle) on their chest, not all of the ewes marked ‘caught’ with lamb during the first tupping period. This meant that rather than the expected 60 or so ewes that should have lambed at the end of February, we ended up with only eighteen! That leaves us with a whopping 200 or so of ewes to lamb at the end of March! It’s all systems go now, preparing for the onslaught.

There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to lambing. The gestation period for a sheep is 147 days (about 5 months). This means that the ram (or tup) is introduced to the sheep in early October for lambing to start in early March. When the ewes get close to their delivery date, we move them into fields that are close to our lambing sheds so that we can keep a closer eye on them. We have to make sure that they are getting all the right vitamins and minerals although we don’t want them to get fat because this makes lambing difficult for the ewe and we want to reduce any risk of complications. Another thing we need to look for is a sheep that has rolled over and become ‘cast’. This means that she has got stuck on her back with her feet in the air. Sheep can get cast if heavily pregnant, especially if they have a heavy wool coat. Once cast, the sheep cannot right herself and can die in quite a short period so it is important that we keep a careful eye on the flock.

Sheep are pretty good at getting on with the job when it comes to lambing. Most sheep have one or two lambs although three lambs is quite common and last year we had quads! The ideal number is two – three can cause problems as the lambs are smaller and it is harder for the ewe to feed three as they get older. Most ewes lamb naturally without any interference but sometimes things can get a bit confused and a lamb can be born breech or with their front legs back. These ewes need a little extra help and we have to correct the positioning of the lambs in the birth canal so that they can come out easily. One of the ewes that lambed last week gave us a bit of a puzzle at first, with the feet of one lamb and the head of another coming out at the same time! Happily, we managed to sort her out and Mum and babies are doing fine.

Once the lambs are born, we move them in doors. The first job is to give them a little dose of antibiotic. This is common practice and helps the lamb to stay healthy in it’s first few days. Even though we run a very low intensity farm, lambing 200 sheep in a few short weeks can bring the risk of cross-infection so this dose of antibiotic helps us to keep the lambing shed disease free. Then the lambs and ewe are marked on their sides with a special aerosol paint so that we know who belongs to whom. We use rubber rings to castrate the male lambs and dock the tails from all lambs. If done correctly and early, this is a relatively painless process. It is necessary to remove tails because tail docked sheep keep cleaner, reducing their susceptibility to ‘fly-strike’, a very nasty complaint that sheep suffer from in the summer when flies lay eggs in the wool which hatch into maggots that can literally eat the sheep alive. Castration of male lambs helps to keep the meat tasting sweet; otherwise a very strong taste can develop, due to the presence of male hormones. This also means that male and female lambs can be kept together. We also take the opportunity to check and trim the ewe’s feet to keep them in good condition and prevent foot rot.

After a few days, we can turn the lambs and ewe’s out during the day but we still bring them in at night as they are still at risk from foxes. The lambs grow very quickly and can be fat and ready for sale within three months although our lambs usually take a couple of months longer to be big enough for market. Due to the problems with foot and mouth and blue tongue last year, we are only just beginning to sell last years lambs which has had a significant financial effect on the farm as well as putting pressure on the land to feed more hungry mouths. I hope the current trend for buying British continues as this is something we desperately need if farmers are to remain in business and Britain is to stay a green and pleasant land.

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