Hollie and I walked down the yard between the brightly lit lambing sheds. Outside it was pitch black, and our breathe floated behind us and disappeared into the night air. A lamb bleated.
‘Aww I can hear one!’ I said.
And then the sheep had heard me. As we walked down the side of the first shed – housing the first lot of ewes and lambs of the season – the sheep saw us, bleated and clambered on their gates to see over. As we walked across to the second shed, they saw we didn’t have food and went back to chewing on their straw beds and settling down again.
In the second shed the lambs were a lot younger. Instead of being weeks old, some of them were days old. There were six bays of sheep – most of which had the sheep and lambs all in together. They had lambed a few days ago, knew which lamb was theirs and the lambs were all healthy, so they could safely be housed together. In a few of the bays were smaller pens with a ewe and her lambs in: these lambs had been born recently and needed to be separated from the rest of the flock, along with their mother, so that the ewe and lambs could get to know each other and the lambs wouldn’t get squashed or stolen by another ewe.
We climbed into the end bay and looked at all of the ewes. At first it looked like none of them were showing any signs of lambing, but I spotted one who looked like she might be – her water bag was showing. We watched her for a minute, then caught her to see what was going on. Hollie has lambed before so knew what she was doing – she thought she might be able to feel a nose but nothing much seemed to be happening so we left her to it.
While we were keeping an eye on her we checked the newest lambs in the pens. Two ewes in the furthest bay with bouncy, perky lambs: no problems there then. In the next bay were two pens both with twins and heat lamps. In one pen the lambs were quite large and would get up to suckle from the ewe and were very inquisitive, but in the other the lambs curled up together under the heat lamps, keeping as warm as possible. We picked them up to see if they were hungry – one had a full belly but the other was very hollow and sucked your finger if you put it in its mouth. As it was so keen to suckle we tried to encourage it to suckle off its mum. Stripping her teats, we found that she had one very full teat and one that hardly had any milk at all. We focused our attention on getting the lamb to suckle from the teat with the most milk, but however hard we tried the lamb refused to suckle from her mum. In the end we made up a bottle of powdered milk to make sure she had something in her tummy.
Turning our attention back to the ewe that had been showing signs of lambing earlier, we found that no progress had been made and in fact we couldn’t even feel a nose any more. Worried that it was taking her so long to lamb, we phoned the stockman, Giles, who said that she had been like that all day. We should go and come back at 11.
So off we went and watched the Student Union elections in the Queen Mother Hall, which was entertaining to say the least, and at 11pm donned our overalls and wellies and headed back to the lambing sheds. We arrived to find Giles with the ewe, and two newly born lambs! He had been a bit worried about her when we phoned, so had come down to check on her and finally the lambs had arrived! He milked some of the colostrum in to a bottle and stomach tubed both of the lambs to make sure they would get that vital first milk, as obviously they’d had a bit of an ordeal getting into the world. He then left us to it and we did a final check of all of the ewes and lambs and headed to bed ourselves shortly after midnight.
This morning we were up bright and early and down on the farm again before most of our flatmates had even thought of getting out of bed. We had come down to help feed the ewes. Firstly we weighed the feed into buckets and then distributed it around the pens. The ewe who had had the difficult lambing the night before was looking chirpy, and nuzzled me for her breakfast. We were asked if we had lectures we had to be back for and as neither of us did and we’re both keen to get stuck in, the farm staff kindly allowed us stay on and help with the morning’s tasks after the flock had been fed and watered.
A livestock trailer was backed towards the first pen, the ramp lowered and the gates opened: the first lambs and ewes were going to be turned out. A scanner was thrust into my hand with commands to scan all of their ears as they ran onto the trailer. Well, that’s certainly easier said than done because once you have scanned one, you have to press save before you can scan the next, and when five run up at once it’s pretty tricky to scan all of their ears! The scanner was to show the location of the sheep – they were being moved from the farm base to a field a minute up the road, and the scanner would record which sheep were moved. We scanned most of the sheep onto the trailer, and then penned the rest into the corner and decided it would be easier to scan them in the pen and then put them all on together, which certainly meant less jumping on sheep for me! Another thing which made it difficult was that the ewes had a habit of running back off the trailer to be with their friends in the pen, thus mixing up which had been scanned and which hadn’t. Eventually we got them all into the trailer, drove them to their new field and let them out, watching as they jumped off the trailer and the lambs leaped in the air and raced about; their first chance to really stretch their legs!
A hay feeder was filled with hay and dragged into the field to supplement the grass, which hasn’t really started growing yet. Before we could collect the next lot of sheep, we needed to feed the rams who were in a different field, so we drove round to feed them. Charollais and Texel rams are used as terminal sires in the flock, and they all came running over when they saw Hollie with the feed bucket. Rams fed, we went and collected the next lot of ewes and lambs – all scanned and ready to go – and turned them out with their friends.
I had such a good time lambing and helping with the sheep the past two days. I’d never handled sheep before (apart from condition scoring in an Animal Production Systems tutorial) but last night I learnt how to tip a sheep so you can safely check their feet, teeth and teats, signs that a ewe is going to lamb and got to bottle feed a lamb, which I’ve done before when I was little, but I’m pretty sure I was scared of the lambs then… ;) We’re lambing again on Saturday night – and eight hour shift which should be a bit busier, as that’s when they’re meant to be lambing! Maybe then I’ll even get to assist a birth.
Thanks to Hollie for letting me come along with her and Giles and everyone on the Harper farm for letting me help out this morning.
More information about the Harper Adams University Sheep Unit can be found on their website, here: http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/facilities/sheep-unit.cfm