Random Thoughts on Lambing

Farmers who keep sheep are usually the ones blessed with most patience. Farmers with a remotely short fuse have long since given up. It is wise to ensure that you have no family predisposition to stress-induced disease before taking up sheep farming.

A sheep’s main ambition is to wake up dead. Remember that, and you’ll know what to expect. The different seasons all bring their assorted ovine worries, but spring is particularly fraught with cold winds, demented first-time mothers, and everyday tiny tragedies. It’s also a hard world in which to be an infertile or miscarrying wife when you’re surrounded by several hundred new mothers all taking a joy in their offspring. Or… not.


The younger ewes who are bulging with milk have always had singleton lambs, and are fiercely opposed to the notion (headbutt: flying imposter lamb) of taking on any adoptees who may have become carelessly or inadvertently short of a mother.

The older ewes who have sad, empty udders and not a hope of feeding a thing, ever, have all produced triplets or quads, and have Nadya Suleman complexes to boot. If it wobbles on long legs and bleats, then they blartingly attempt to claim it for their very own.

Ewes with milk who have dead lambs are coerced into adopting either orphans, or the tiniest triplet or quad, who otherwise wouldn’t stand a chance of getting the faintest sniff of an udder with its own mother and siblings.  Sometimes the adoptive mother likes the look of the new lamb, and after a day or so of observation, they are turfed out to new grass and – hopefully – some sunshine. Skinning a ewe’s dead lambs and tying the skin over the adoptee does work sometimes, but it’s much pleasanter all round to put the sheep in an adoption crate – a narrow pen that stops her kicking and head-butting her new lambs –  for a couple of days. After the lambs have suckled for a while, they start to take on the familiar scent of her own lambs, and the ewe becomes blissfully contented with them. Deception isn’t always a sin when you’re a shepherd, although I would be mightily obliged if you didn’t mention that to John, who is already sufficiently mendacious regarding issues he thinks I don’t need to know about.

Of course, there are a couple of days every year when it all goes mad, and hurdles and adoption crates start to look like an illegal immigrant dormitory. Everything that can be turned into a holding pen contains a chuckling ewe and Meeep!-ing lambs. 


Then, you have the sheep who have either taken a marked dislike to their own lambs at first sight, or, as sometimes happens with the novice ewes, are completely petrified by the sight of them. It’s so sad seeing a ballistic bundle of legs hurtling out of the pen, forcibly propelled by an alarmed mother. There are ways and means of encouraging the maternal instinct along a little. A dog who knows what to do, for instance (lurk outside the pen and snarl threateningly), can catalyse their protective reaction towards young. My spaniel Tebbit merely pants a friendly greeting to the ewe, gives the lambs a good lick all over, paying particular and revolting attention to their bottoms, and settles his fat behind into the warm hay for a comfy snooze. 

Hubby and I still reminisce about Psycho Sheep 2004, who succeeded in climbing the barn walls to an astonishing height in order to evade her leggy offspring, and ferociously attacked anything, irrespective of their leg-count, that came even vaguely close to her. I liked her enormously, but I distinctly heard Hubby muttering about chops.

Delivering a ewe of a long-dead belly of lambs? Far, far beyond hideous. Strangely, Hubby always seems to take one for the family team on those occasions, and is seen scrubbing his (already chapped and suffering) hands fairly relentlessly afterwards. Sometimes the ewe lives, particularly if she has milk and can be given a lamb to care for.

Vaginal prolapses are reasonably common, but having to replace a prolapsed uterus is unusual – and horrifyingly bloody, I discovered this year. Amazingly, the sheep in question is still alive, perky, and peritonitis-free 2 days later.

We have had lambs born with their insides on the outside, and others born with 5 legs. All very peculiar.

Sheep are extraordinarily and breathtakingly stupid. Every year, I end up stumbling at speed around a field or a barn with an abandoned lamb tucked under my arm, trying to catch up with its disinterested mother. Except I am now hauling a 22lb toddler under the other arm, which makes me even hotter and crosser, especially as I am trying to keep Harry a reasonable distance from anything coated in either shit or amniotic fluid. 

Hubby put two ewes and their respective triplets in the small field directly in front of the house at my specific request; Harry greatly enjoys looking out of the window and pointing at them squeakily. They had been there exactly half a day when triplets x2 became quads x1 and twins x1. This is typical ewe/lamb behaviour.

When turning the new families out into the fields after their 24-hour-barn-supervised hospital stint, the healthiest looking, perkiest ewes will generally be the ones that are lying mysteriously stone dead in the morning, with two tiny, cold, knock-kneed attendees lying alongside. 

The lambs are carted off back to the farm to either die quietly, or to respond to Rayburn Oven’s intensive-care system. We have heat lamps, but the old ways are often the best. 

I lost my second baby during lambing time, in 2006. I can remember running around a field with an abandoned twin lamb under my arm, hot and exhausted, tears pouring down my face, chasing a ewe who thought that one lamb was plenty, thanks. I was 3 days post-miscarriage, and still suffering a fair dose of crampy agony. I should really have left the lamb to sink or swim 3 field-circuits previously – they generally find each other eventually – but I simply couldn’t leave the field and see the tiny lamb standing there all alone, bleating plaintively. I was so toweringly angry with that bloody sheep.

I was vaguely despairing of my FIL when all I had to admire from my windows throughout the 7 week period of consequential sick leave – during which I was a mess – were the handful of ewes who had miscarried their lambs and had no milk. He had applied bright red marker in a cross to their backs, and turned them into a handy-sized field. The field in front of my infertile house of baby-death.

The lambs are frisking merrily outside my window, perching triumphantly on every bit of high ground they can find, including their own mothers, and exuding a inimicable charm. During Spring, I always struggle to comprehend the scales on which the joy and despair of reproduction are finely balanced.

I appear to be ovulating, and I want another baby.

I don’t want to be pregnant again. I’m 3 stone too fat, too scared, and too tired. I’m full of cold and headachey.

I’m still stuck on the bloody Merry-Go-Round of indecision and vacillation, in short. You must be as bored of this as I am.

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