During lambing time, when the new 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. At the same time, they are quite capable of stumbling into a beck or stream, so they often get moved with their mothers to a convenient sheltered place where they can’t get into bother.
In the Lake District, lambing usually starts at the beginning of April. It’s a strange mixture of dread and excitement for farmers: dread at the work to be done and the things that can go wrong, but excitement because it’s time to see whether the flock is improving.
On a good day farmers save lives; on a bad day—when ewes or lambs die—the feeling of being a failure can be overwhelming.
It’s a time of feeling knackered, stressed, and 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; in theory the fields now have some grass after being cleared of last year’s lambs.
A large share of ewes lamb in the first 2–3 hours of daylight, so the mornings become a blur of running round ensuring that things are OK. It is said that Lake District farmers develop a mental map during lambing of all the different sheep giving birth at different places, and when they need checking on.
When the ewe’s waters break it’s fairly safe to leave them for maybe an hour to lamb naturally, then 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.
Newborn lambs, a critical time
Some of the younger ewes get confused and stressed and can be a bit hopeless. They might lamb in exposed wet and windy places, not let their lambs suckle, or even be scared by their own lambs and run away. Though Herdwicks have more sense than most modern breeds, they still need skilled shepherding in this hard country.
Any lambs that aren’t full of milk (you can tell by their bellies when you catch them and hold them up) 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; if the lamb has a bad mother and it’s a snowy morning, they can be “starved” (our word for cold). Conversely, some of the older mothers are so proud they will stand over you whilst you check their lambs.
Nature: warts and all
Little changes in the weather can have a massive effect on the newborn lambs. On wet or snowy mornings lambs can be found shivering, so they’re brought into a “maternity ward” in a barn with rows of cubicles.
It can take all day to look after problem cases in the barn. If it can go wrong, it will go wrong at lambing time. Nature can be cruel; in bad weather ewes can walk away and leave their second lamb to die.
It is fairly common for Lake District farmers and their neighbours to lose lambs to a fox, so you’ll often see farmers hurrying round the ewes and lambs first thing each morning checking all are OK. Many farmers know all of their ewes individually by sight.
The future of the Herdwick flock
Tiredness and stress take their toll on Lake District farmers after three or four weeks of lambing, but most wouldn’t miss lambing for all the world.
As lambs are born, the future of the flock becomes apparent, and little clues in their appearance say whether these will be good sheep.
Because farmers are proud of their breeding stock, and show and sell these to other people, they are constantly looking at what each ewe has had. If a newborn lamb stands up with great legs, a big well-bred head, and nice white lugs then you may have a good ’un.
By the end of lambing time the valley bottom meadows are full of ewes and lambs, which have been moved out of the lambing fields (because lambing ewes can try and steal other ewe’s lambs). The Lake District valleys echo 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, and then put the single lambs back on the fells or higher ground. Twins stay in the in-bye land, clearing the meadows for growing the crop for next winter.
Visiting during lambing time
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