I’ve spent most of my life living on a farm. Being a farmer’s daughter, I was brought up on a farm in the village of Angram near York and then on a farm near Beverley. As a child, my parents initially kept pigs and cattle, but later my father focused on breeding and rearing pigs together with arable farming. In addition, mum sold free range eggs both at the farm gate and our local WI market in Beverley.
For the last nine years, I have lived with my partner Trevor on his sheep and arable farm near Bedale, North Yorkshire. His family have been on the farm for four generations. Keith (Trevor’s brother), farms over at Masham and is responsible for lambing around 1,100 ewes from both farms. We also grow a mixture of cereal crops in rotation with fodder beet and stubble turnips, which provide valuable winter nutrition for our sheep and they in turn add organic fertiliser to our arable land.
Many of our wonderful countryside views and traditional images of Great Britain wouldn’t be possible without livestock farming and I find it heart-warming to be involved in an activity that contributes to the traditional fabric of the world we live in. Many people may not appreciate the cultural side to farming which is far more than a commercial business. It is a way of life for many farmers and is deep seated in terms of the commitment made by the farmers and their families to carry on the responsibility of previous generations. It is this background that helps drive you forward during times of peak activity in the farming calendar, such as lambing time……
Field of ewes and lambs turned out for spring.
Just before Christmas, all the lambing sheds and available barns are full to bursting, tempers are simmering and our ‘shepherd’ Keith is a shadow of his former self! It’s the time of year when many farmers are busy lambing but with most of the activity taking place indoors, the much-loved view of lambs skipping in green fields, with daffodils in full bloom under a clear sunny spring sky only happens once the weather warms up in March when our ewes and their lambs start to go outside.
We use mule ewes for breeding (a cross between Swaledale ewes and Bluefaced Leicester rams) as they tend to be good mothers, easy to handle and lamb with an abundance of milk. They in turn are put to Suffolk and Texel rams; Suffolks are faster to mature whilst Texels have a better quality carcass. This cross-bred mix provides a better genetic outcome in terms of health and vigour together with the right attributes for market conditions.
My Texel flock
My focus is on breeding replacement stock to sell onto other sheep farmers for their own breeding stock, so naturally I become attached to my ‘favourite’ – the Texel. I have a few pure-bred Texel ewes that I breed each year, keeping the gimmers (female lambs) for breeding the following year, while selling the rams privately or at Wombleton sheep sale. The Texel breed originates from the island of Texel just north-west of Holland and flocks were first introduced to the UK in 1970 (Texel Sheep Society). I love their appearance - black markings around the eye, set on a white face with a thick, tight fleece.
Texel ewe and lamb.
I used to let my goose run with my flock of Texels to protect her from predators. She enjoyed helping herself to their food and occasionally a sheep received a gentle peck on its hind quarters as she tried to control proceedings! She felt part of the flock and always voiced her displeasure when the sheep were moved to a new pasture – she clearly had identity issues, bless her!
Where does it begin?
We buy Gimmers (female sheep up to a year old) to replenish our breeding flock. When the ewes are ready to go to the ram they are split into batches to help co-ordinate lambing dates. Ewes naturally come into season towards Autumn but to encourage them to come into season slightly earlier, some of the ewes are introduced to ‘teaser’ rams. Approximately a fortnight later, the ewes are then placed with the rams.
One ram will serve 50 ewes; however, we usually place an odd number of rams in each field. The rams each wear a harness housing a coloured crayon to mark the ewes as they are served and every three weeks the crayons are changed for a different colour to catch any ewes that are not in lamb. This process ensures that all the ewes are served and reduces the risk of barren ewes. A spray marker is also used on the ewes to identify their approximate lambing date, so by the time the ewes reach the lambing sheds their wool is quite colourful, but luckily, it all makes sense to Trevor and Keith!
Ram wearing red crayon marker.
Keeping track of the many batches of ewes that are in lamb is made easier with the tag reader as the sheep have an electronic ear tag which is a legal requirement. Gestation takes approximately five months and we scan the ewes to determine the number of lambs they are carrying. This helps us to ensure the ewes receive appropriate nutrition during their pregnancy and provides us with anticipated lambing rates.
Lambing starts just before Christmas and continues through to April, peaking in February. As the ewes approach their expected lambing date, we bring them into the lambing shed, monitored by CCTV. As the ewes’ lamb, they are moved into individual pens allowing the ewe and her lamb to bond. Separating them from the flock protects the new born lambs and allows us to keep an eye on both ewes and lambs more easily. We can also check the new-born lamb receives vital colostrum from its mum, which contains all the essential nutrients and antibodies required for the lambs to thrive. They usually stay in individual pens for around 12 hours, we then put them into small batches for a further two to three days. The ewes and lambs are moved again into batches of around 30 for a further two weeks, staying in and around the lambing sheds. Finally, when the lambs are strong enough they are transferred to larger sheds or turned out to grass depending upon the weather. We sometimes mark the ewes and their lambs so they can be easily identified in case they get separated when we move them to larger groups or in the field.
Ewe with newly born lambs.
Trials and tribulations
Lambing time can be particularly stressful as it demands long hours during the coldest winter months, and the ever-present lack of sleep due to 24-hour monitoring. Of course, there are also the inevitable lambing complications; stillborn lambs and ewes that despite tremendous effort by Keith, seem determined not to carry on! Occasionally, we are left with orphan lambs that require a foster mother, so ewes, who have lost their own lambs, provide the ideal answer.
Ewes may need assistance to lamb which can take up to 2-3 hours and pure-bred ewes such as Texels can experience more problems than the cross-bred mule ewes we use for general lamb production. Just recently, one of my pedigree Texel ewes, about to lamb, experienced problems. She is a shearling (in her 2nd year) but lambing for the first time and as she only had one lamb, Keith could feel the lamb was larger than normal. This is a problem that can put both ewe and lamb at risk, adding to the stress for all concerned, consequently Keith spent time monitoring her carefully. After a couple of hours, he assisted her again and luckily for all, the ewe finally produced a very large, healthy ram lamb.
Our aim is to move the ewes and lambs outside as soon as possible to take advantage of spring conditions and nutritious grass. Unfortunately, with our climate, this is easier said than done! Lambs are particularly vulnerable in wet conditions, so they are kept in open fronted sheds to ‘harden’ them off before being turned out to grass in March. This helps them become acclimatised and the fresh air circulating throughout the shed provides a healthier environment.
Finally, when conditions are right we turn the ewes and their lambs out to grass. This has a tremendous impact on the flock as we see health and vitality get a boost. The flock almost trebles in size in the space of a few months, but seeing the lambs outside in the spring sunshine makes all the hard work, sleep deprivation and stress of the lambing season worthwhile.
Deborah Wiles, Farm Secretary at Rolawn