The first lambs I saw this year arrived in the first half of December. Lambs can easily become separated from their mothers (human mothers have the same problem!) and so matching numbers are sprayed onto mother and babies. Watch this lamb as it tries to find its mother, and see if you can see who she is before the lamb does!
from Harriet, foster mother to four lambs…
Some lambs are left motherless, due to the ewe dying or, more usually, having an inadequate milk supply. In these cases, the lamb can either live with its mother, but be bottle-fed, or taken away and hand-reared. If they are left with the mother, the lamb normally loses interest after a few days of not suckling from her.
When is lambing season?
We lamb from late-December (our first arrived on Christmas Eve, this year!), but we have very hardy Welsh Lleyn sheep. The ram runs with them all the year round, but the tupping naturally happens around July and August. Other breeds will lamb later, if the ram is withheld from the ewes, so that there is more reliable grass available by the time the lambs are born in March/April. One farmer up near Sherborne lambs in the Autumn and Spring, so he has a constant, reliable supply of finished lambs.
What do you feed them?
The first three feeds need to be colostrum (an antibody-rich first milk produced by mammals). We usually use cow colostrum, using excess colostrum from a freshly calved cow, which has been frozen. After that, we use cow’s milk fortified with powder and yoghurt (yakult for lambs!). Like with babies, they prefer the milk to be at body temperature, which takes less energy to warm and digest.
How often do we feed them?
Three or four times a day to start with and then twice a day from a month old.
When do they get weaned?
Slowly, the lambs will be given dry food (rolled barley meal, starter pellets, hay and grass) alongside their milk. They will gradually lose interest in the milk and naturally wean themselves off it. Most of them will have done this by three months.
Last night Tom said to me, “I’m on lamb checking duty tomorrow morning at 5am if you want to come, but if you do be sure you’re there at 5 sharp ‘cos I won’t hang around!” The rising gale moaned around the eaves as the wind threw handfuls of raindrops against the window panes. I thought of the balmy winter evening I had offered to accompany him on this duty, imagining pastoral scenes with glittering frost underfoot and glittering stars overhead, thought ‘sod’s law’, gulped, and said “I’ll be there”.
I awoke at 1am, 2am, 3am, and lay worrying about the washing left on the line which could well be adorning the overhead sycamore tree by now. And worrying about whether the beautiful ash tree at the foot of our garden would stay rooted. And considering whether to wimp out and stay in bed when the alarm went at 4:40am.
When the alarm went off the roar of the gale had sunk to a hum. No rain pebbles beating the windows. So off to meet Tom and go to the field which is currently the sheep maternity wing of the farm. I don’t know about the name of this field but if you look at the old land use maps you will often see that the small field or sometimes orchard by the farmhouse is called Lambleaze for that reason.
Upon entering the field we flashed our torches around and Tom immediately said, “Look, one’s over there. There’s the rest, there should be 27 altogether.” He counted, somehow seeing distant sheep that were so much in the shadows I could barely see they were there at all. After a couple counts he said “Yeh, there’s 26 there. Let’s get this lamb and ewe into the trailer.”
So we went carefully but purposely up towards the ewe and suddenly Tom was walking beside me holding the lamb, with the ewe nuzzling it as he led her to the safe warmth of the straw-bedded trailer. In they both went, Tom marked the lamb with a special spray so it would not be mixed up with the other lamb and ewe in the trailer, and we were on our way back out of the field ten minutes after arriving.
When the lambs are older they are put into another field separate from the one in which they were given birth. Sheep are happiest outside: it is after all ‘home’ to them. When gales come they huddle into hedgerows for protection from the elements.
Last night, we think it must have been in the teeth of the gale, another lamb pushed deeper and deeper into the hedge….and out the other side. On the other side is the A352. The country lane ancestry of the A352 is unmissable. Unfortunately those bends also meant that lamb was unmissable….
It’s a jungle out there.
Foxes do not take lambs very often. One reason the local farmer chooses Lleyns is that they are good mothers and will defend their lambs. Usually if a lamb is taken it is from a multiple birth and the fox grabs a lamb while the mother is defending its sibling.
Two days ago something unusual and distressing for all happened. During lambing the flock is regularly checked 24/7. During one of the checks the night before last a partly eaten newborn lamb was found beside its dead mother. The mother had no sign of violence on her – no marks. But she was dead as well, most likely from a heart attack.
In general foxes prefer to catch wild prey. Certainly the woods that fox came from are full this time of year with pheasants. But anyone who has lived in an urban or suburban area is likely to have come across ‘urban foxes’ who have foresworne the rural life to live on a diet of refuse. My experience of those foxes is that they are rarely like the large, vibrant, thick-coated foxes we see in the Valley. They are usually rather thin, often mangy. In short, they are often foxes that have moved in for easy pickings because they are old or unwell.
The Man-eaters of Tsavo is a story of man-eating lions in Africa in the late 19thC. It is still in print. I suppose that part of the fascination associated with man-eating carnivores is due to their rarity, as well as the fact that for the majority of the world’s population it is not a present danger. Even lions seem to prefer ‘wild’ life to humans for dinner. This link looks at various hypotheses for why lions should find human flesh desirable.
The shepherd’s problem is that somewhere in the vicinity there is a fox which has discovered that newborn lamb is easy-pickings; especially if, as appears to be the case, the lamb was attacked whilst the ewe was giving birth. Any fear that fox may have had of sheep because of their human association is now dispelled. And wild animals are also able to learn from each other, as anyone who remembers the days of tits attacking milk bottle tops to extract the cream will recall.
And there is also the grief and horror of the poor ewe’s experience to deal with. To farm livestock successfully one does need to have a deep empathy and care for the animals. Each and every animal is a relational asset as well as a financial one. And a whole year’s work and nurturing has been focused on building up a healthy ewe who will produce a healthy lamb (or two).
The ewes are currently putting on weight, getting ready for lambing. They were with the rams in August, and there is a gestation period of about 5 months so the lambs will start arriving at the end of this month.
The sheep which graze in our paddock are Lleyns. They are “renowned for their hardiness, prolificacy, ease of lambing, strong mothering instinct, milkiness, and easy handling” according to the National Sheep Association.
In order that the ewes are able to maintain condition at the same time as grow lambs, the sheep are receiving supplementary feeding. As with the cows, the grass is growing too slowly at this time of the year so does not contain much energy or nutrition.
The mix the sheep are given contains
- rolled barley (grown on the farm) – carbohydrate for energy
- dried seaweed (bought) – vitamins and minerals
- ‘blend’ made of bought in soya and oilseed rape, for protein
When the lambing time approaches, they will be brought in only if it is wet. Lleyns have evolved to lamb outside if it is dry and cold. The sheep are regularly checked and any lambs are brought in with their mothers in order to check they are healthy, and that they are able to suckle with no problems. Later when they are stronger they are taken back outside with their mothers. When they are newborn they can be quite vulnerable, and this is the time that they are most likely to be taken off by a fox. Sadly we lost one from our paddock overnight last spring.