The alternative title for this piece was 'Hobbies for Retired People To Avoid No.
1 Lambing'. I am of an age where having done my bit for the human-race (three children) my wife and I decided enough was enough! However I failed to take into account that my wife suffers from 'incubatitas', a chronic condition-affecting woman of a certain age who did not have enough pets when they were children. In short if she sees an egg she feels the overwhelming urge to get it to hatch, and any infant animal will be clutched to her bosom and cared for whether it needs it or not. That is the most benign of the symptoms, and it sometimes results in us having a cage in our house containing any mix of chicks, ducklings, goslings, quail or pheasants at highly inappropriate times of the year. Luckily for the most part the birds have more sense than 'she who can never be wrong' and only lay from Valentines Day onwards for a couple of months. When the smell and mess get bad they are consigned outside with a heat lamp.
Such is the level of indulgence that the other day when I looked at our tiny eight-acre field I concluded that soon we would be arrested for overcrowding. Let her explain it to the Judge, I will plead senile decay as my defence or perhaps entrapment.
Any way last year, in pursuit of servicing her maternal instincts, and because we have a restaurant she purchased six orphan lambs (which instantly overnight became twelve, I still do not know how the number doubled). Everyone knowledgeable forewarned her that many would die (alledgedly sheep have an ongoing communion with death). Thanks to my wife's diligence and to her delight all twelve prospered (now she's the best foster mother for lambs in the world in her eyes, and justifiably proud of herself).
Of our twelve orphans, nine were male, so we ate them, or more accurately we supplied them to our restaurant, the meat was a bit tough and lacked flavour. The chef's were very miffed when we wondered if it was their cooking methods at fault, after all my wife's lambs could not be at fault, could they? We have now been told that this species of sheep 'is not a meat animal'! What else is there? The next generation, given the correct mix will be excellent. What a load of codswallop!
However, we were left with three 'tame' ewes. So we need more breeding ewes to keep them company don't we? At the local market, well advised by our in-house advisor we purchase fourteen 'two tooth' ewes, except by the time we get home it's doubled to twenty-eight two-tooth ewes. How it got from fourteen to twenty eight is still something of a hazy memory but now with thirty-one sheep in an eight-acre field we are overstocked (what else is new?).
Each year two of our Alpacas are loaned to a local farmer to protect his sheep and lambs from foxes, a task they are very good at, although once you have your Alpacas you cannot use your sheepdogs. Alpacas can't tell the difference and the sheepdogs would be in extreme danger. The Alpaca will even charge a strange human if they get too near to the ewes or lambs. In return we get to borrow a large handsome ram that sets about all our lady sheep. He is able to save his strength, as he doesn't have much journey time between trysts.
Our (pregnant we hope) ladies must now go away for a holidays our field needs a rest before the thirty-one sheep eat it bald. Anyway it will allow our besieging army of moles the ability to sleep soundly without one hundred and twenty four sheep's feet thundering about overhead all night (or do moles sleep in the daytime?).
Whilst our sheep are away on a friends land with his sheep, they have another ram more than happy to 'fill in the gaps' so to speak. Whilst they are away they are scanned, a high speed mysterious process done by a man with a machine, part of which he shoves into our ewes lady bits, calling out 'empty', 'single', 'double', or occasionally 'triple'. None of the tea and biscuits we got when my wife went through the same process, mind you my wife didn't have to stand in a line waiting her turn to be subjected to a five second electronic lunge, but the picture painted makes me smile. We end up with a forecast of zero empties, eighteen single and six doubles. The original three 'tame' ewes stayed at home because they were not yet of breeding age. However we failed to be aware that one of the eaten tame males had not succumbed to our obviously amateur attempts at castration (the tight little ring had missed one ball, and he had his underage sex got two of the two three tame ewes pregnant).
They must all now be paint sprayed to remind us of their status. It is the first of many reasons to colour code and paint your sheep. By the time we finished lambing the various colour coding of each animal with all the information it looks like a field full of home knit new age travellers. We could create Jacob's coat without resorting to a dyer.
We are getting ever closer to the 'due date'; my wife goes to a neighbour's farm in the midst of his lambing. He has over 2000 pregnant ewes so there is no comparison, but She gets some invaluable hands on experience. I for my part, erect the 'maternity suite'. We have an elderly marquee that is 30 foot square and we have decided to lamb inside this, other than the tent trying to escape in the high winds. It turns out to be a great success. Some cheap posts, screening and a few sheep hurdles and everything is ready for our ladies.
Doing our best to follow multitudinous conflicting advice about to feed or not to feed our ladies prepare for their confinement. Many of our local farmers 'lamb outside', I really do not fancy trudging through the mud and rain throughout the night, trying to find which ewe is imminent, so we bring them into our lambing tent, singles one side doubles the other side. At this point our 'tame' ewes, serviced by their single balled dead and eaten colleague give birth, two successes and one blank.
Before we bring in the 28 pregnant ewes we discover our first 'birth' from the main flock. Sadly the lamb is dead; its mum is very distressed and will not leave the little dead body. The poor little thing has been mutilated by rooks, we suspect, there's lots of them about. My wife's knowledgeable tutor comes to our aid. The dead lamb is skinned, a spare lamb (from triplets) is purchased and dons the dead skin. We tie up the ewe; rub dead skin coat round her nose, after twelve hours tied up she adopts the intruder. After three more days with the skin stinking and getting tight we start to trim away the 'coat' watching Mum. Her mothering instincts prevail and she has an adopted son that she continues to care for.
We now wait for the remaining 27 ewes to give birth. The regime is, stressful and tiring, I suspect more so, as we are first timers. My wife stays up, dozing on the sofa, until 4-5 AM every night, I do the 7 AM check and some of the daytime ones.
The process continues for weeks, obviously the ewes cycle and the rams performance did not happen all in one day so as I write this piece there is one lone ewe still to deliver and we have been waiting for her for over a week. The process of birthing lambs goes from the 'delightful surprise' (tiny tottering lamb being nurtured by a proud and caring mother) to the horrific task of dragging with a rope an oversize lamb that dies as it exits its cell through an undersize door. These are first year ewes (two tooth) so these young sheep are as bewildered as we are. It seems, from our very limited knowledge that rejection of the lamb, and/or a failures to be interested often seems to follows a traumatic birthing process where human intervention, somewhat heavy handed, has been deemed necessary.
In the middle of the whole process, when lack of knowledge took our stress levels through the roof the overriding emotion was 'never again'. Now at the end when our peers tell us we did OK, when we have a field full of delightful, apparently healthy lambs and the sums seem to indicate that there's a profit to be had perhaps we will do it again next year, after all our ewes have gone through a learning process as well.
The hourly rate of pay however is so non-existent that we must cost the process down to learning and as such it seems a shame to waste it next year.
The whole saga has been, in the round, a worthwhile experience, if only to enable me to look at my local farmers, many being customers, with a new and far greater respect.
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