Lambing Time: A Family Affair

Rewritten and updated for lambing in 2019

Farming is an eight-days-a week job. It’s our livelihood but it’s also our life. So, when our kids were young they helped out on the farm whenever they could. When the lambs arrived we needed them most of all because, in Spring, farming is a family affair.

All Hands On Deck

Each year, when lambing began the kids fought for the chance to drive around the sheep with Dad. It was great fun spotting the new lambs in each paddock. They slid merrily out of the Toyota truck to get the gates and raced to return straying twins to their mothers. 

New Mums For Abandoned Lambs

Most ewes are conscientious mums. They nuzzle their babies close, and stand still as a rock when the tiny lambs search for milk. Sometimes the ewe loves one of her twins but bunts the other away. And, occasionally, a new mum will take one look at her just-born lamb and head for the hills.

In those days we picked up every stray and gave it to a ewe whose own lamb had died. This is called “mothering on” and is a lot of work. Generally, Terry spent an hour or two mothering-on at night, when it was too dark to be out in the paddocks. Night after night, he stumbled home at 9 or 10 pm, picked at his reheated dinner and then fell into bed.   

There wasn’t always a suitable mother right when we needed her so we kept the spare lambs in a sheltered pen near the house. These lambs had to be fed little and often, so while Terry was nodding over his dinner plate the kids and I would be out giving the lambs their night time bottles.

Like all newborns, lambs have a strong sucking reflex. But most of them don’t cotton on to bottle feeding straight away. By the time they started school, all four of our kids knew how to persuade a reluctant lamb to drink. 

It was just as well. By late September the lambs were coming thick and fast. There could be 20 little orphans scrambling for the bottles each night and I was glad to have all hands on deck. 

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

A Lamb To Remember

Every year the children begged for pets to keep. We don’t remember all the healthy ones now, but one lamb we’ll never forget. 

Floppy wasn’t a pretty lamb. 

His spindly back legs didn’t work the way they should have, so he was always last to the milk at feeding time. All the other pet lambs raced to the bottles and gobbled. Huge, milky bubbles frothed around their mouths and they choked in the rush to be finished. When the last drop of milk was gone they scampered away. 

But Floppy loved a cuddle and Debbie gave him hundreds of them. Every day after feeding time they curled up together and I found the two friends in some funny places. Sometimes they lay in a sunny spot in the grass. On cold days they wobbled over to the hay barn and played in the hay. And, when it was hot, they curled under the trees and slept.

Floppy’s spirit was strong, but his body grew weaker as the weeks went by. His wobbly legs gave out but still, he didn’t give up. He sat in the sun by the gate and baaed for his bottle and a cuddle whenever we walked out the door. 

We held a funeral when at last he gave up the fight. 

Debbie cuddling her special pet  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 —

In those days we shut small mobs of sheep into each paddock. This is called set-stocking. We had so many paddocks, that having a dedicated gate opener saved Terry time and energy. 

It wasn’t always the kids who helped. My parents loved to escape their city routine and come lambing on the weekends. So did our cousins and their friends. Those kids are adults now, but every one of them remembers those busy holidays on the farm.

I bet you think that gate-opening is a piece of cake. All you have to do is:

  1. Leap out of the truck
  2. Unhook the chain
  3. Push open the gate
  4. Wait for the truck to drive through
  5. Push the gate shut
  6. Hook up the chain
  7. Haul yourself back into the truck
  8. Repeat in every paddock.

It sounds simple, but it wasn’t.

Every gate had a different kind of latch or chain. Some were easy to unlatch but tricky to hook up again. Others did exactly the opposite. 

Many gates swung easily high on their hinges. But some had sagged and dragged on the ground. We had to lift and heave those gates bit by bit while the truck revved impatiently on the other side. 

Most of our gates were sturdy metal ones. But a few were ancient wooden affairs. We held our breath, hoping they’d stay in one piece when we tugged them open.

— And Other Lambing Jobs

Black and white photo of sheep and twins in the paddock.

We used to mark each set of twins with a colourful spray and that made it easy to spot a twin who’d wandered away. We’d pick it up and find the mother by looking for a lamb with the same mark. 

Before we were married, the men simply put dots or lines on the lamb’s head, ears, neck or back. A circle always meant triplets. The kids and I were more creative. We sprayed stars, crescent moons, numbers, letters… Terry didn’t care what we did — so long as he could easily spot the mark. 

Spraying twins was another of the ‘easy’ jobs. All you had to do was:

  • jump out of the truck, 
  • scoop up the twins, 
  • spray exactly the same mark on each lamb
  • and dash back without disturbing the ewe and lambs. 

Simple! Or was it?

Sometimes, one or both lambs thought you were their new best friend and followed you, bleating at the top of their lungs. So, you turned them around and patted them towards their mum. But no, back they came. 

You pushed them with the shepherd’s crook. Back they came again. You tangled them up, one on top of the other. Still, those persistent little creatures dashed under your feet.

In the end, there was only one thing to do: hop into the truck and drive in a circle around the ewe with lambs dashing behind. Usually, they met in the middle and the lambs would dive for their milk, tails wagging full bore.

But We Work Differently Now

Nowadays we don’t mark the twins any more. We’re trying to keep things natural and disturb the sheep as little as possible. And, you know what? It turns out that 99% of those wandering lambs find their mums without any help from us. You can save a lot of time and effort if you don’t know what belongs where.

However, we do still spray the ewes 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.

Back They Come

Our kids grew up long ago, but every year someone comes home to help out at lambing time. Last year Chris was running the show. But he’s in Chile now, so this year Debbie has left warm, sunny Ohope to do her bit down South.

I like to think that farming keeps the girls grounded. They may be city-based now but they can all still catch and lamb a ewe. They haven’t forgotten how to scoop up a runaway lamb and unblock its gummed-up tail.

We love it when they come back and truly appreciate their help.

A Day In The Life At Lambing Time

Wake up! The dawn chorus is deafening. By sun-up, we’re gearing up for the morning lambing beat. Even on a fine morning, we put on jerseys, coats, hats and long socks under our trousers. 

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. 

Inevitably, a few lambs have died overnight so we have to pick them up. But what we’re really looking for is signs of a ewe in trouble. 

We breed our ewes to have easy births, and most will. They pop it out, turn round and find a tiny, wet lamb to lick clean. Before long, the lamb will struggle to its feet and nose its way towards mum’s udder. She’ll drink the life-giving colostrum and never look back. 

But some poor ewes have it tough. Their lambs come backward or their twins get tangled. Sometimes a lamb’s too big and is just plain stuck. These problems are not always easy to spot. 

Ewes that are out in the open and eating or chewing their cud — those girls are usually fine. But we check anything that’s sitting by itself. A ewe in trouble will slink under a tree or droop beside a fence. Sometimes, they are near another ewe but they look hunched and miserable.

Double Trouble For One Ewe

The other day, Debbie and I were on the lambing beat while Terry and Steve (the busy fencer/saffron grower from Kiwi Saffron) were installing some new hop frames. Just as we were leaving the paddock, Debbie spotted a ewe in trouble. We nearly missed her because she wasn’t off by herself. No, she was in a group, nibbling on grass seemingly without a care in the world — except that a lamb’s head was showing, obviously stuck. 

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 bolts no matter how miserable she feels.

Some dogs are great at helping to catch a sheep. Our son Chris has Rose for that. She makes his life much easier when it comes to catching sheep. But Rose won’t work for Debbie and me so we had to use strategy, cunning, speed and strength to catch this ewe. 

Debbie Leaps To The Rescue

I drove the Polaris and manoeuvered her up a fence line towards a corner. Debbie jumped out and closed in with her crook. Of course, the ewe bolted. But the Polaris blocked her way so she turned and charged past Debbie. Luckily, Debbie is fit and fast. She sprinted, leapt, and hooked the ewe’s leg with the crook all at the same time. Somehow she stayed on her feet — and held onto the crook — while the ewe dragged her along before finally slumping in defeat.  

Lucky sheep! Both her lambs were in the wrong position and were well and truly stuck. If we hadn’t caught her they’d both have died, and you never want that to happen. However, Debbie worked out the puzzle of mixed up legs and heads and brought each lamb out into the world. We put the ewe into a pen in the nearby hayshed to get acquainted with her babies in peace and carried on.

The Beat Goes On

Round the sheep…deal with any problems… open and close the gate… into the next paddock… repeat, again and again. 

On a fine day, it’s magic. On a wet, cold, snowy day it’s horrible. The best we can hope for is a fine, warm spring with no problems. The worst we can get is the opposite.

Life on the farm circles through the seasons and lambing is the start of it all. The way we lamb may have changed, but the joy of new life stays the same. We’ve seen thousands of new lambs over the years, and we still get a kick out of watching them play in the paddocks, nuzzle their mums or sleep in the sun. 

Terry’s got a wealth of knowledge and instinct when it comes to caring for his stock. I love the way he has passed it on to our kids —  and so do they.

1 year old Harvey is bottle feeding a lamb with his mother and auntie at lambing time.
We’re getting older now, my farmer and I. Thank goodness the latest generation is already learning some essential lambing skills.

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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