Each year, when Easter rolls around and winter feels like it may finally be departing, most of us will relax into a four day weekend, hopefully with the sun shining. And possibly a chocolate egg or two. For the farming community, however, Easter is right at the peak of the lambing season. Here at Coombe Farm, March sees our head shepherd Pheobe and the other sheep farmers 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 October, the flock of Coombe Farm Lleyn ewes is split into two groups. A pure pedigree Lleyn ram will serve the first group of ewes. The best female lambs produced by this batch will go on to be future breeders. Two New Zealand Suffolk and two Texel rams serve the second group. These boys produce well-conformed, sturdy offspring that provide us with great meat. In particular, the NZ Suffolk rams thrive on all grass systems and pass on physical traits that make lambing easier such as finer heads and narrower shoulders.
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, we 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 us 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.
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 we 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, it’s a lot of work crammed into a relatively short space of time and can be a really draining time of year, physically and emotionally. Not only must we 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 where our automatic wind blinds in the shed make sure our ewes stay toasty and dry.
The early hours of the morning are a popular time for lambs to come, so all-night sleeps are rare. Pheobe and the team always needs to be on hand to help out if things get complicated and the CCTV installed in the lambing shed ensures they can respond quickly. Very young lambs are extremely vulnerable to infection, so as soon as they’re born Phoebe covers their navels with antibacterial spray to stop any bugs getting in. She then ensures that they’re suckling properly from their mothers. Colostrum – the first milk produced by the ewe – is richly nutritious and contains vital antibodies that help protect the lambs from diseases. Once she’s checked that the ewe is healthy, Phoebe can let the new family get on with the important business of bonding.
Once the lambs are born, they stay in the pen with their mum until everyone’s given a clean bill of health. 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. Ewes with triplets get special attention – it’s vital the team is sure she has enough milk to feed all of her babies and that they’re strong enough to compete for it. If the ewe has insufficient milk, Phoebe will bottle feed one of the lambs or try to get a ewe with a single lamb to adopt it. She also does this when a lamb is orphaned.
As well as the hands-on work, Phoebe also has plenty of admin to keep on top of during lambing. She logs every birth in a diary so she can keep track of how many lambs have been born, if there have been any losses and what each ewe has produced. Record keeping is very important on the farm – it flags up any issues, helps with forward planning and means all our animals (and their meat) is fully traceable.
Phoebe and the rest of the farming team work hard and do a fantastic job keeping all of our animals happy, healthy and well cared for. It’s a tiring but satisfying time for them. 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.