Each year, when Easter rolls around and winter feels like it may finally be departing, most of us will celebrate with friends and family. And possibly a chocolate egg or two. For the farming community, however, Easter is right at the peak of the lambing season. Which is odd, considering lamb is the most popular meat to eat at Easter. The joints that end up on your Easter table will come from lambs born early in the season, around November, but most farmers opt to lamb in the early spring, with the promise of warm weather and fresh grass on the horizon.
Here at Coombe Farm, April sees Kate, our shepherdess, in the throes of preparation for the arrival of a new generation of lambs. But it’s not just one month of hard work, a whole year of planning and preparation goes into a successful lambing season.
The fun begins
In November, the flock of Coombe Farm Lleyn ewes is split into two groups. Two Dorset/Lleyn rams will serve the first group of ewes. The best female lambs produced by this batch will go on to be future breeders. Two Blue Texel rams serve the second group. These Dutch-heritage boys produce well-conformed, sturdy offspring that provide us with great meat.
Ewes have seventeen-day ovulation cycles and are fertile for only a brief period of time. The rams have to work hard, chasing their way round the ewes and sniffing to check when they’re ready to be served. When he finds an in-season ewe, the ram will ‘knock’ her with his leg. If she doesn’t run away, that means she’s ready for mating. It’s common for rams to lose a considerable amount of weight during the ‘tupping’ season as they have a lot of ladies to look after.
Each ram wears a harness with a coloured crayon attached to the chest. When he mates with the ewes, the crayon marks their backsides with a splodge of colour. This way, Kate can tell when the ewes have been served. By changing the colour of the marker regularly, it lets her calculate when each ewe will lamb. When their work is done, the rams are taken away for a well-deserved rest, until their services are called on again next year.
In the bitter chill of January, it’s time for the ewes to be pregnancy scanned. This is a very skilled task and it’s an important way for Kate to know how many lambs each ewe is carrying. That way, she can make sure the ewes are getting the right amount of nutrition as they enter the later stages of pregnancy. In 2018, 186 of our ewes were scanned, 62 of these were expecting 1 lamb, 115 were expecting twins, 10 were having triplets and 9 were not in lamb. Those ‘empty’ ewes are normally coming to the end of their reproductive life.
The lull before the storm
Scanning complete, the ewes are separated into two groups; depending on how many lambs they’re carrying. Ewes with single lambs should have no problems and can live on slightly lower quality pasture. In fact, it’s desirable to keep them away from really lush grass as fat ewes carrying very big single lambs may have problems giving birth.
The twins and triplets are put on top-quality, plentiful grass to ensure they have all the nutrients needed to produce healthy, strong lambs. In later pregnancy, multiple lambs start to make huge demands on the ewe and as they grow and take up space, it’s more difficult for her to eat a lot.
As lambing time approaches, the second group is moved close to the farm so Kate can keep an eye on them and get them ready to come into the lambing shed. They’ll be housed during lambing as multiple births call for extra care and sometimes a bit of help is needed.
All hands on deck
It often feels like a long wait for the first ewe to lamb, but once she does the others rapidly start to follow suit. For shepherds like Kate, it’s a lot of work crammed into a relatively short space of time. Not only must she monitor the housed ewes but she must also keep a watchful eye on the others out in the field. Any that give cause for concern are brought inside.
The early hours of the morning are a popular time for lambs to come, so all-night sleeps are rare. Mostly, the ewes can give birth without assistance. The skill of the shepherd is in knowing when to leave them to it and when to intervene. For Kate, a healthy ewe with plenty of milk and active lambs keen to suckle is the best outcome.
Outside in the fresh air is the ideal place for lambs so as soon as mum and baby are doing well they’ll head back to the field. It’s a tiring but satisfying time for Kate. And for everyone else at the farm, nothing heralds the arrival of spring more joyously than the sight of the new lambs bouncing in the fields.
After the scanning the ewes will then be separated into two groups depending on how many lambs they are carrying. The double and triplets will be put on the better-quality land because they will need higher quality grass to ensure healthy, strong lambs are born. This group has now been moved back closer to the farm ready to be housed in the next week. They will be housed during lambing as extra care is needed when the ewes are expecting more than one lamb, once the lambs are strong enough they will be turned out into the field with their mums. With the ewes only expecting one lamb they will remain in the fields close to the shed whilst lambing, this is because it is very unlikely for the ewes to struggle during birth with one lamb. However, they will still be monitored throughout the day to ensure they are all well, if there is a problem the ewe and her lamb will be brought into the shed for extra care until they are ready to return to the field.
It is always an exciting/tiring time of year but we cannot wait to see the lambs bouncing around the fields. Don’t worry, we will share plenty of photos with you over the next few weeks. From us at Coombe we would like to wish you a great Easter!