Lambing Time: A Family Affair

All Hands On Deck

Running a farm is an all-encompassing affair. It’s your livelihood and your life. So when you start having kids, lambing time becomes a family affair.

Our children were immersed in the farming lifestyle from their earliest days, and never more so than in Spring. During this busy season, our motto has always been “all hands on deck.”

When the kids were small, tiny lambs were their main delight. Because of the intensive way we lambed back then, there were always spare lambs in the pen waiting for new mothers. They were fed four times a day, and the kids quickly learned all the tricks of the trade, from mixing up multiple batches of milk to persuading a reluctant lamb to drink.

3-year-old Debbie bottle feeding lambs at lambing time.

A Lamb To Remember

Inevitably some became pets. Every year, a new set of pets to love and play with. Our memories of the healthy ones are blurred now but one lamb we’ll never forget.

Floppy. He was not the prettiest, with wobbly back legs that never worked particularly well, but oh what a personality that lamb had. Other lambs came running for the milk and rushed off to play as soon as the bottle was empty. But Floppy loved a cuddle and because he belonged to Debbie, who loved animals to distraction, he got hundreds of them. I would often find them cuddled up together in the paddock or in the hay barn, both perfectly happy.

Floppy’s spirit was indomitable, but his body gradually let him down. Eventually, those wobbly back legs gave out, and he stopped walking. Even then he didn’t give up, dragging himself around on his front legs and bottom, and always happy for a bottle and another cuddle. It was a sad day for us all when at last he gave up the fight.

Debbie cuddling her special pet lamb, Floppy.
Debbie with Floppy who only lived 3 months, but taught us a lot about making the best of what life gives you.

Opening The Gates

As the kids got older they graduated to task number two: gate opener. Our sheep were set stocked, which means that each little mob was shut in its own paddock. There were so many paddocks, each with its own set of problems, that having someone to open and close the gates was a great time and energy saver.

It wasn’t always one of our children of course. My parents loved to come up and help out at lambing time, and so did visiting cousins and friends. It was such a thrill — and an education — for them to go round the sheep with Terry.

Gate opening may sound like an easy job, but on our farm, believe me, it wasn’t! Every gate seemed to have a different sort of latch or chain. Some were simple to unlatch but tricky to do up again. Others were the opposite. Some gates swung beautifully on their hinges; a few had to be lifted and heaved bit by bit until there was just enough room for the truck to squeeze through. Most gates were metal — a few were the old (actually, ancient) wooden variety and we were more than a little scared of breaking them as they creaked open.

— And Other Essential Tasks

In those days we identified all the twin lambs by spraying them — each set with their own colourful mark. If a twin wandered away we could find the mother by looking for the other similarly marked twin.

In their, pre-children days, the men would simply use dots or lines on the lamb’s heads, necks, backs etc. But once the kids and I came on the scene we got far more creative. Terry didn’t care what we did — so long as he could easily see the mark.

Again, this was a job that anyone who was agile enough to jump out of the truck, scoop up twin lambs, deftly spray a mark on exactly the same part of each lamb, and dash back to the truck without disturbing the ewes or being followed by the lambs (who suddenly decided you were their best friend) could do. It was another way we could help Terry save a little bit of energy for the big things that the kids couldn’t do yet.

Fast forward to 2018, and we don’t mark the twins any more. In the keep-it-natural-whenever-possible way we approach lambing now, we’ve found it really isn’t necessary, We save a lot of time, and spray and funnily enough, 99% of the lambs and mothers seem to find each other again anyway.

Nowadays we reserve the spray markings for sheep and lambs who’ve been mothered on. We put the same mark on both the ewe and her adopted lamb, just in case they get separated.

2 sheep and lambs brightly marked with flag symbols for the 2015 Rugby World Cup which happened during lambing time.
The 2015 lambing: Steph decided on a “Rugby World Cup theme” and marked all the mothered up lambs with flags. They were all particularly bright and easy to identify that year.

A Day In The Life At Lambing Time

Wake up time is not by the clock, but rather, with the birds. By sun-up we’re filling the flask with hot water — for mixing milk powder, not coffee — and gearing up for the morning lambing beat. Even on a fine morning, that means jerseys, coats, hats and long socks under our trousers.

If you’re me, you might even be wearing woolly leg warmers and a rug. The men, of course, are far tougher and wouldn’t be caught dead with either of those. But, as I said before, it’s pretty chilly in the Polaris and I like to take all possible precautions against the cold.

So off we chug in the Polaris. It’s small and light, and the sheep don’t take much notice of it as we trundle around the paddock, unlike the larger farm truck, which they tend to view with some alarm.

Inevitably there will be one or two dead lambs to pick up, but what we’re really looking for is signs of a ewe or lamb in trouble. Most ewes will give birth naturally and without too much drama. Then they’ll turn round, find — somewhat to their surprise — this tiny, wet creature, and begin to lick it clean. After a while, the lamb will find its way to the udder, have a good drink of warm, life-giving colostrum and never look back. We don’t have to worry about those lambs.

Looking For Problems

Not all the ewes have it quite so easy. Lambs coming backwards; twins in a tangle; a lamb that’s grown too big and is just plain stuck — these are what we’re watching for and they’re not always easy to spot. Ewes that are out in the open, eating, looking happy — those girls are fine for now. But we check anything that’s off by itself beside a fence, or under a tree, looking a bit forlorn.

You would think that a ewe in trouble would be grateful when the lambing shepherd arrives to help. You would be wrong! As soon as she realises that you’re interested in her, she’s up and away. No matter how miserable she feels, she’s likely to bolt as soon as you try to catch her.

Some dogs are great at helping to catch a sheep. Our son has several that make his life much easier in that regard.

We don’t!

I’m not particularly good at imitating a sheepdog, but I do my best to head the ewe in Terry’s direction, and if we’re lucky we’ll catch it the first time. Or maybe on the second attempt. By the third attempt, I’m keeping very quiet and trying not to be noticed. If (heaven forbid) we have to make a fourth attempt… well, let’s just say that on those stressful occasions I learned some new words in the first few years that I did the lambing beat.

Round the sheep…deal with any problems… open and close the gate… into the next paddock… repeat, again and again. On a fine day with few problems, it’s magic. On a wet, cold, snowy or windy day it’s horrible. The best we can hope for at lambing time is a fine, warm spring with no problems. The worst we can get is the opposite.

Back They Come

Our children may be grown up now, but every year at least one of them comes home to help out at lambing time.

I like to think that farming keeps them grounded and, like riding a bike, those skills learned as children and teens never really leave you. The girls may be city-based now but they can all still help to catch a sheep or lamb a ewe. They haven’t forgotten how to grab a runaway lamb and unblock its gummed-up tail.

We love it when they come back and truly appreciate their help. We’re getting older now, my farmer and I, but, happily the latest generation is alive and well and getting ready to do his part.

1 year old Harvey is bottle feeding a lamb with his mother and auntie at lambing time.
Harvey is getting ready to join the team at lambing time.

Lambing Time looks a little different on the farm these days. Find out more in Part 1 of this series: Lambing 101

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