Wednesday, 7 March 2012

'Ahhhh look, Likkel Lambs.....'







ZZZZ ZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzZZZZ!Sorry, what!? Pardon? No I was NOT snoring!

It's 4pm, Tuesday afternoon and I'm yawning those great big yawns that make tears come out your eyes. It's the end of my short-term apprenticeship as a farm hand in the hills of Shropshire (the last frontier before Wales,) and I'm super tired.

'Can I come lambing, can I, can I?' I'd asked, over and over for months. My farming friends caved in eventually, confident that I'd loathe it.

'It's mucky, pooy and you'll smell.' they suggested.
No change there then, I thought. I knew I wouldn't hate it. I've always loved the thought of farming, and yes I have romanticised it. Trouble was, I used to visit a family dairy farm in Ireland when I was young, a wonderful place with Uncle Jamesy and Aunt Tess and soda bread, jam and home made butter. It turned my head early on.

I got up super early this morning (though not as early as the hubby who left the house before 4am to fly to Germany.) I placed my kit by the door long before I woke the sproglets for school: Wellingtons, a pair of mechanic's overalls, plus gardening gloves and an entire change of clothes - something I'd been advised I'd need.

The drive to the hill farm was stunning, after yesterday's hideous gale force winds, it was a treat to have a calm day with belting sunshine and no hint of a breeze. Shropshire is a rare treat, if you've never been, please visit. It hints at the rugged charm of Wales but boasts a softer landscape.

The Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is believed to have the greatest variety of rock types of any comparable sized area in the UK. The rocky Stiperstones, the plateau of the Long Mynd, the craggy volcanic Stretton Hills and Wrekin, the harsh quarried landscape of the Clee Hills, the long wooded scarp of Wenlock Edge and the rolling enclosed hills of the Clun Forest all have their own distinctive beauty.

Parked in the farm yard I changed into wellingtons but was unsure of my overalls just yet. I politely knocked at the front door, suddenly feeling a little shy. There was no reply and I wondered whether I might actually be more of a hindrance than a help in this well oiled professional farming environment. Cows with young gazed at me from over the wall and I set off to find the workers.

Mr Farmer spotted me first, he grinned broadly glancing at my clean jeans and grey sweater.

'Have you got waterproofs with you?'

I described the overalls and he nodded.

'Put them on then and best take your ear-rings off too, we don't want to lose them up the arse of a ewe, do we now?'

Now I was quite worried. His wife, my gardening obsessed pal, laughed at me, watching as I whipped off all jewellery on the way back to the car.

*

The first job seemed easy enough: Us gals were to move seven ewes and their 14 babies to a little green field a quarter of a mile away. They were already loaded on the trailer so a simple job really. !!

Dear Lord!

No one seemed to know who their mother was and we had to ensure that everyone was bonded before we left the field. We herded and cajoled, we patted bottoms and removed confused lambs from incorrect teats to pass them back to their rightful owner. For a first timer like me, it was all a bit stressful, but in the end, nature took its course and the ewes settled to eat and the babies to drink, all in the spring sunshine. Lovely.

Moving another group through the yard was similarly challenging. Three adults and a dog versus 2 day old lambs and their protective mothers seemed fair but it took ages. One new mum, a Texel, was very protective of her lamb. Texel's are a mighty breed, with a dog-like face and broad back. This mother was stocky and looked like she might have Sicilian connections, dipping her head as if to say,

If you touch my lamb again I'll bunt you into next week...

Fortunately she didn't bunt me and we slowly drove these family members to a lovely patch of green, close to the farmhouse.

*

In the lambing shed, ewes awaited their time in fenced sections on beds of straw. They leapt up in excitement when I started to meet out fresh bedding, as I gathered a great armful of silage which I'd mistaken for straw! [Not even remotely like straw - my only excuse being over excitement!] Fortunately I was corrected quickly.... how embarrassing.

Here and there were signs of labour and I began to feel nervous. What if I did something wrong, or hurt a sheep? In the end I had little time to think. Joining a big NZ guy who'd just wrestled a ewe needing help to the floor, I watched as he buried his hands in her, searching out little hooves.

Within a moment he'd located legs and head and was pulling. As soon as the head was free a great whoosh of sack, amniotic fluid and goo pushed the baby free. He cleaned the nose and mouth and the new lamb coughed and sneezed, drinking in life. Wow. But that wasn't the end, another baby was due and this time I tentatively felt for the hooves and the head. With a little help (I confess) I gripped the legs and pulled, delivering my first ever lamb. Stupendous.

The next instant the ewe was on her feet cleaning her lambs and we were off to wash thoroughly.

Do you get chapped hands from lambing?' asked my pal of the New Zealander.

'Yeah,' he replied in that great broad drawl. 'I think it's a bit of fanny-itch.'  

I fought the urge to examine my, or anyone else's, hands and used all my will power so as not to rush back to the wash station to rewash with the yellow kitchen cleaner I'd previously mistaken for soap.

Most lambs fared well during the day, thanks to the expertise of the farmers who spotted difficulties I had no knowledge of. One moment I was talking to my pal, the next she'd vaulted the pen and was atop a mother in difficulty. Her baby was backwards, an awkward birth. Reaching in, she extracted the lamb (that sounds so easy doesn't it!?) cleaned airways and began swinging the lamb around in a most unusual way. [I'm sure this move is more difficult with a calf!] In an instant the lamb was fine, lying next to its sibling, being licked to within an inch of its life.

The day progressed similarly and I even got to feed a lamb a bottle of powdered colostrum. Colostrum is the first milk produced by a ewe during the 48 hours immediately after the birth of a lamb. It is yellow and thicker than normal ewe milk. The new-born lamb must receive colostrum or a substitute within 18 hours of birth, otherwise it has only a 50:50 chance of survival.

I was bewitched. The feel of a small lamb with a warm belly, lying trustingly in your arms while sucking milk, is gorgeous.
We snatched a lunch and my friend tried to encourage her husband to sleep, as he'd been in the shed all night with the sheep. He resisted, having too much to do while the weather was being kind. Soon he joined us on a hillside that overlooked the whole world while we planted a hedge of holly and blackthorn, something they do every year on their extensive plot. I was inconsistent at my planting, not quite managing the staggered 6 plants per meter first time. I may have begun to flag by this stage in the day.

It was a wonderful experience, one I'd gladly repeat, (even the hedge planting.) So great to be with lovely people all day, out in the air, lambs bleating at your ankles.

But it's not an easy life by any means. If you're tired or the weather is bad, an animal dies or your back aches, you're still required to get up, go about your duties and deliver. Worse, for me, would be the huge stack of paperwork that farming requires, passports for animals, ear-rings (less sparkly than mine) to identify each beast and then there's the movement papers if you take them to market. It must take just as long to process the farm in the office, as it does to run the farm. Still, I guess it needs to be done.

All in all, it's a life I admire and certainly I think it's a far better one better than some of the high-powered jobs I've done in city offices with demanding clients.

What do you think?

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The Archers at The Larches


Snowy and Moon