Lambing Time On A Herdwick Farm
We start lambing at the beginning of April. It's a strange mixture of dread and excitement at the start - dread at the work to be done and the things that can go wrong, and excitement because if sheep are your life then this is a time of seeing whether your flock is improving and your breeding decisions working. It's a time when you feel like your job is important because you save lives, but on a bad day when ewes or lambs die you also feel lousy like you failed. By turns it makes you feel knackered, stressed, depressed, but mostly alive and adrenalin-fuelled. It’s a time of early starts, late finishes and spoilt sleep.
The ewes are brought into the lambing fields in the valley bottoms a few days before they are due to lamb (fields which in theory now have some grass after being cleared of last year's lambs which have been fattened and sold). A large share of our ewes lamb in the first 2-3 hours of daylight, so the mornings become a blur of running round ensuring that things are OK. You kind of have a mental map in your head when lambing, of the different sheep lambing at different places, and when you need to check on each. When the ewe's waters break it's fairly safe to leave them for maybe an hour to lamb naturally, then we would return and check all is well. Too much interfering can make matters worse, too little and lambs can die or be abandoned. The older ewes know exactly what they are doing, and many will lamb themselves in a sheltered place and get their lambs suckled. Some of the younger ewes get confused, stressed and are a bit hopeless. They can lamb in exposed wet and windy places, not let their lambs suckle, or can even be scared by their own lambs and run away. Though Herdwicks have more native sense than most modern breeds, they still need skilled shepherding in this hard country.
When the lambs are born the first few hours are critical to their prospects. It's essential that they get enough of the yellow creamy colostrum milk that carries the antibodies and nutrition they need. Thankfully, Herdwicks are full of vigour and get-up-and-go. Within minutes many lambs are on their feet, but then they are quite capable of stumbling into a beck or stream, so we often have to move them and their mothers to convenient sheltered places where they can't get into bother. Any lambs that aren't full of milk (we catch them, hold them up and can tell by their bellies) will be brought inside, and tubed with milk from their mother (or artificial substitute) into their stomachs. The length of time a lamb can stay warm and alive varies a lot depending on the weather and how good a mother it has - a bad mother on a snowy morning and they can be 'starved' (our word for cold). Some of the older mothers are so proud they will stand over you whilst you check their lambs, the younger mothers can run off and abandon their lambs in their confusion.
Little changes in the weather have a massive effect on the new born lambs. On wet or snowy mornings we find lambs shivering, and bring them into a maternity ward in the barn with rows of cubicles. It can take one of us all day to look after the problem cases in the barn. If it can go wrong, it will go wrong at lambing time (imagine looking after several hundred children in a park). Nature can be cruel - in bad weather ewes can walk way and leave their second lamb to die.
Tiredness and stress take their toll on you after three or four weeks of lambing, and you get a thousand-yard stare, and a short temper, but I wouldn't miss lambing for all the world. As lambs are born we see the future of our flock, and little clues in their appearance tell us whether these will be good sheep. Because we are proud of our breeding stock and show and sell these to other people, we are constantly looking for what each ewe has had - so it’s quite exciting when a good ewe that has bred well before lambs to a new tup. If it stands up with great legs, a big well-bred head, and nice white lugs then we can start dreaming about its future. It is fairly common for us and our neighbours to lose lambs to a fox, so we hurry round the ewes and lambs each morning checking all are OK. Like many farmers we know all of our ewes individually by sight, so you have to concentrate on what lambs each ewes has, and when you have hundreds that's not easy.
By the end of lambing time our valley bottom meadows are full of ewes and lambs which we have moved out of the lambing fields (because lambing ewes can try and steal other ewe's lambs). The whole valley echoes to the sound of ewes calling to their lambs, and the older lambs start racing each other across the hillsides. The next job is to vaccinate them, give them the lug and smit marks that identify them as ours, and then put the single lambs back on the fells or higher ground, and the twins the In-bye land, clearing the meadows for growing the crop for next winter.