The labours of lambing on a Herefordshire farm
PUBLISHED: 10:41 18 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:44 20 February 2013
Andy and Frances Offer will be opening the gates of Whyle House Lamb near Pudleston this month so visitors can see the new arrivals. Here Andy describes the lows and highs of being a birthing partner to 100 ewes
There is nothing quite like being on your own at 4am in a freezing cold barn with the life of a ewe and breech-presented twin lambs literally in your hands. The most amazing thing is how hard ewes can push when you are trying to re-arrange things so that you can deliver the right lamb with the correct legs and how tolerant the lambs are of being re-organised inside the ewe before they even see the light of day (or night). Its immensely rewarding when it all works, but it can be very daunting and it always happens when youre at your lowest ebb.
Were a small operation here at Whyle House Lamb, with about 100 ewes from which we produce about 180 lambs to sell direct to the public. A sheeps breeding cycle is 17 days which means they should all lamb within three weeks assuming the ram serves them all in the first cycle. This three week period of intense activity is the same whether you have 10, 100 or 1000 ewes to lamb but larger numbers do require more time and energy from the shepherd, which tends to mean very long days and short or broken nights. But its great fun and I never tire of watching the lambs come into the world and within 30 minutes get to their feet and start suckling.
Scanning is probably the most anxious day of the year for us as its then that we find out how many lambs were expecting. Its just like human scanning except that the ewes dont then bore everyone rigid with pictures. We manage the ewes feeding very carefully just before the rams go out to encourage them to produce twins. This is the absolutely crucial stage and if we get this wrong then we either end up with lots of triplets which is very bad news as ewes can only suckle two lambs, or too many singles which reduces our productivity. The ideal is a 200 per cent lambing percentage with every ewe rearing twins.
We had only seven sets of triplets last year but they were still a problem. The theory is that you foster one of the triplet lambs onto ewes with a single, which is a great theory except that singles generally lamb late in the season, and triplets lamb early, so they dont often coincide. You also need to be very quick, to catch the ewe having a single lamb and introduce the foster lamb just before her own arrives.
Needless to say it often happens late at night and on one exasperating occasion I saw a single starting to lamb and dashed into the triplets pen and grabbed one ready to foster which I did successfully. And then while I was proudly inspecting the new family, my wife quietly pointed out that the fostered lamb was actually a twin which had escaped from a neighbouring pen. They say you need a good relationship to lamb with your wife it wasnt her fault, but she neednt have pointed it out until morning.
So after scanning day we know the maximum number of lambs we can sell but only the most optimistic or the most foolhardy will count the scanned percentage as the number of lambs theyll have to sell. Not all lambs (or even ewes) make it to lambing and even once they are born, there are many challenges for them to overcome.
Hypothermia can be a real problem in young lambs but as we lamb indoors this is less of a risk. We did have a sudden cold snap last year though and nearly lost this little chap until my wife cut up an old jumper sleeve to keep him warm.
We do get problem presentations when I have to intervene but most of the time they do perfectly well on their own. The biggest problem for novice sheep keepers like us is knowing when to help and when to leave well alone. I usually leave ewes for 20 to 30 minutes after they start straining and if nothing obvious is happening, Ill investigate. But then, some ewes never show any signs while others will make a huge fuss for hours and then deliver a tiny lamb completely unaided again a bit like humans I suppose.
When I first started lambing, Id reach a point with the difficult ones where Id panic and send my wife off to fetch our vastly more experienced neighbour. After a while shed recognise the signs and would simply walk around the yard a couple of times before coming back usually to find that Id got the lamb delivered successfully.
Once the lambs are born they are moved with the ewe to mothering pens where they stay for 48 hours. We treat their navels with iodine to prevent infection and make sure they are suckling properly so that they get the early milk or colostrum which transfers the crucial immunity from the ewe.
If the weather is very cold, we might put the ewes and lambs into bigger batches and keep them in for a few more days but they are much better outside in the fresh air. And so the feverish activity ends for another season, the lambs and ewes thrive on the spring grass and the lambs start their lamb races across the fields in the evenings and our thoughts turn to summer and the host of new challenges which await us.
As I write this were nervously awaiting our scanning day in a couple of weeks time. Lets hope weve got lots of lambs but not too many triplets!
Well be opening our farm every afternoon during lambing so you can come and see all this for real. We particularly welcome young people and are happy to accept parties of children, school trips and youth groups by prior arrangement. These open afternoons will start on 20th March and carry on for three weeks over the Easter holiday. You can find details on our web site at www.whylehouse.co.uk
Whyle House Lamb is in the village of Whyle, near Pudleston, five miles from Leominster.