Lambing in the Spring
Throughout Britain, the natural sheep farm of Europe, sheep numbers are increasing.
The lowlands alone are home for over a dozen different breeds and crossbreds.
For the shepherd, or sheep farmer, lambing is the culmination of nearly six months of careful and skilled management. Spring is the time of their annual harvest, when a good crop of lambs is as important to them as a bountiful grain harvest in the autumn is to the arable farmer. To capitalise on the hard work of the previous winter months, the shepherd’s one concern is to ensure that lambing goes ahead as smoothly as possible.
As the time of birth approaches, the shepherd rounds up his pregnant ewes and puts them in a field near his home. The site is selected to avoid natural hazards such as deep ditches, ponds or low-lying ground which is liable to flood; the flock must also be protected from exposure to prevailing winds. The need for suitable shelter is important because of the obvious change of environment the lamb experiences when it leaves its mother’s body at the moment of birth.
The lamb is ejected very rapidly from the ewe. As the navel cord snaps, the lamb drops to the ground; the ewe gets up almost immediately and investigates her offspring. She begins licking the lamb and massaging it to life; within minutes it is on its feet and searching for her milk-dripping teat.
Most ewes lamb safely without human assistance. A good shepherd will regularly inspect his flock day and night, but only lends a hand when it becomes obvious that the ewe is having difficulties. Otherwise the shepherd’s top priority after delivery is to keep the newborn lambs alive. If they are cold and wet, they must be rubbed dry with straw or sacking. More important still is adequate nourishment, since food provides energy and energy generates heat to keep the lambs warm. Ewes and their lambs are therefore penned closely together so that the young have constant access to the udder.
Orphan lambs It is quite common during lambing to find several motherless lambs. This is not so much because ewes die after giving birth, although this does happen, but because certain ewes may be unable or unwilling to accept some lambs. Most ewes have one or two offspring and many are bred to produce twins. Sometimes ewes with twins may refuse to take the second lamb. Others, through lack of milk or faulty udders, simply cannot look after two lambs. The attentive shepherd will identify these abandoned lambs as quickly as possible and have them fostered.
Ideally the orphans are introduced to a ewe that has lost her own lamb — a delicate operation. The ewe is a sensitive creature, with a keen sense of smell; therefore the orphan lamb’s back is rubbed with fluid from the foster mother’s cleansing (afterbirth). Another trick of the shepherd is to tie the lamb’s forelegs loosely together with string so that it has difficulty getting up. In this way the lamb impersonates the action of a newly born getting to its feet for the first time. Sprays are available which can be squirted over the foster mother’s nose to confuse her sense of smell. The lamb is also sprayed and hopefully the ewe will now take to it. If a ewe refuses to suckle her offspring, an effective remedy is to introduce a sheepdog into the pen. The ewe invariably rises to this challenge and defends herself and the lambs.
New-born lambs will put up with cold, wind and snow, but some deaths can be expected if these conditions do occur Lambs also succumb in large numbers to heavy cold rain. The shepherd can protect his flock against the elements by covering lambs in a plastic coat, which has a large hole for the head and smaller holes for each leg.
Apart from the weather, predators are the other serious threat to the survival of lambs. Although it is popularly believed that foxes are the greatest danger, carrion crows and ravens are even more deadly predators. Raiding parties of ravens have been known to attack when a ewe is in trouble and unable to defend herself.
Stomach worms are another hazard, although drugs are now available which control and eliminate this parasitic problem. In fact in the last 30 years both drugs and vaccines have been of great help to the shepherd. Two small doses of vaccine injected into a lamb will provide protection against eight common sheep diseases.
Nowadays sheep can be divided into five groups; hill, longwool, self-contained breeds, terminal sire, and crossbreds. The rare, more primitive breeds such aswere once valued for their milk and wool. Lowland farms commonly run flocks of crossbred sheep which, when mated with terminal sires (or down breeds), produce very fast growing, meaty lambs which are finished and sold in the market; mutton is now less in demand than it used to be. Wool is the second most important sheep product, although in lowland areas this accounts for less than 5% of the total income from sheep farming. Sheep dairy products are becoming increasingly important in Britain.
There are currently about 43 million sheep in the British Isles, more than at any time since official records were first kept in 1866. This total does, however, include lambs which are only present for part of the year. The increase in numbers is interesting because in other industrialised countries the numbers are in fact declining. The popularity of mutton in the past and now lamb as meat, is probably the main reason for this.