A Day in the Life of The Chief Shepherdess
Have you ever eaten a meal and loved it so much you eat the same thing for days on end? Or have you enjoyed a film to the point of re-watching it to death until you know all the words? That little buzz you get, the sudden rush of endorphins that make you all warm and fuzzy inside...times that by a million and that's close to the feeling you get when you watch a new-born come into the world and take its first gasp of fresh air. I quickly became addicted to that high of seeing new life...so much so I used to watch lambs (or any animal/ human) be born on YouTube of an evening.
The first few hours are critical to the lamb and mother's wellbeing. The bonding for one, this starts while the ewe is in labour, she will become more vocal and the sound is very distinctive; softer and almost soothing. The unborn lambs will get used to that sound and so when they are eventually born they recognise her voice in a field of 100 other mums! When they have managed to birth the lamb (hopefully alone and successfully) they will quickly need to lick any sack from the lamb’s face, failing to do this results in suffocation and is a real shame when you do find them like this. The mother's lick the lambs to stimulate them into breathing and I like to think it helps to bond them also. Within the first few hours they need to drink as much colostrum, which is the first milk the ewe produces. It looks different to regular milk, it's custardy and can be really thick and creamy. It contains all the antibodies they need to stand a chance surviving, failure to have enough good quality colostrum can lead to all sorts of illnesses and they are incredibly vulnerable. Some lambs will be up and on their feed within minutes of popping out, trying to find the teat for that "liquid gold". Of course this is an ideal scenario, which no matter what you may see on TV is not always the case. Which is where we step in. The farmer or the shepherd. Our main responsibility is to the welfare of the flock. That even can take precedence over our own wellbeing if you're not careful and need to make sure you remember to drink and eat enough, without fuel you can't look after them and that's when silly mistakes happen.
My domain when lambing is the "pet pen", most of them will only have a fleeting stay before they are adopted on to a new mother, but some are with me long term. Under my wing will be all sorts, triplets mainly. An ewe only has two teats and so rearing three lambs can be a real strain on her. Not only that the chance of one being pinched by a badger or fox while she's preoccupied with the other two is alot higher. With this in mind, we tend to take a lamb off every set of triplets. The aim of the game is for every lamb to have a mother and majority of our ewes we would like to rear two lambs. With this in mind, when we see an ewe scanned as a single go into labour we will always try (milk supply permitting) to adopt one from my pet pen on to her. So, trick her into thinking she's had two lambs. It's fascinating to see how other farmers manage it compared to the techniques you use on your own farm. The one we will use the most is to pull her lamb out on top of the orphan, so they are both covered in the birthing "juice" and we have a relatively high success rate.
Rule number one of keeping sheep. They love to die. Or at least try to die. That first year keeping sheep and seeing a dead lamb I was so saddened, it bothered me so very much that we didn't know WHY it had died. But can you imagine you getting a post-mortem done on every one that dies? It was a tough one but over time I've learnt you can only do your best and then it's down to them and a bit of luck. We've had animals that we were both sure weren't destined to live that have survived and we've had crackin' lambs that have suddenly dropped down dead. Death in farming, both when going slaughter and "unplanned" is a vital part of the whole operation. A wise man once said to me "when you stop feeling sadness when you see deadstock, you stop farming". It's so true. You are a farmer for the love and for the passion for your stock and there is no better time of year than to see the fields full of ewes and lambs, you did it. You survived a wet autumn, a dark cold winter and now to celebrate you can sit and watch the sunset and see all your lambs running around without a care in the world.
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