Lambs are usually born in the Spring. Ewes naturally become fertile in the Autumn and lambs arrive five months later in the Spring, when the grass begins to grow. Dorset sheep, including Portland, Poll and Horned Dorset, and Dorset Down all have the ability to lamb year-round. Farmers can produce lambs off season, and command higher prices. ‘Spring lamb’ that is often marketed at Easter is not actually born in the Spring. That lamb is born in late autumn or early winter and is probably from a Dorset sheep.
My Portland sheep are born in the Spring. But the Poll Dorset ewes we bought last April were put with the ram on the first of May. So October was a very busy month!
We brought them all back from Stoke Knapp farm and put them in the field right by the house. There were too many to keep in the open shed down in the farm yard, so we had to lamb outdoors this time. Many farmers lamb outdoors. The first set of twins arrived and Archie and I soon settled into the routine. We assisted where necessary and once born, sprayed the cord with iodine to stop any infection, then let the ewes take over. It never ceases to amaze me. After the ewe licks her lamb, mewing and bonding, the little thing is soon standing and trying to find the teat. These Dorset lambs were quite strong, some up and sucking within about 10 minutes. I cannot leave them until I hear that sucking noise and see the lamb wag its tail as it gets that first suck, so am very grateful when it happens quickly.
I was not as comfortable with outdoor lambing. If a problem appeared or if something seemed not quite right it was more difficult to catch the ewe to examine. Archie was brilliant and quickly became quite skilled at catching the ewe. We had gloves, lubricant, etc. with us in the Polaris Ranger as we zipped around the field. I acted as midwife, Archie assisted.
Of course, we had some difficult births. We had a few lambs that were stillborn - they were born dead and we could not revive them. Luckily there was usually a twin so the ewe still had a lamb to care for. All the Dorset ewes were shearlings, they had not given birth before. A few were quite confused about what was happening and the instinct to lick and bond didn’t kick in right away. We did set up bonding pens down in the shed. If the weather was turning nasty or the lambing process started in the late evening Archie caught them and moved them to the shed where we had light and they had a nice straw bed.
The vet came to help with a breech birth. These are often quite tricky. The lamb is backward, bum first, so the back legs must be carefully pulled around. This can be difficult and the poor ewe is very uncomfortable. The lamb must be very quickly pulled out so it doesn’t take a breath inside as the cord breaks. This poor ewe has a terrible time and the lamb was dead. Unfortunately there was no twin. But the vet went on to help me with another successful birth (see photo above) and gave me good tips on Poll Dorset twins. Lambing is still a learning process for me. I did feel challenged and upset sometimes but really satisfied as healthy new lambs bonded with their mums.
The weather was fairly good throughout October. We did have one cold wet weekend and a couple very young lambs became chilled. So down to the shed, under a heat lamp, and within 24 hours they were much better. I didn’t lose a lamb born alive, even a tiny ram with pneumonia. After treatment with antibiotics, the heat lamp, and an attentive mother he is up and thriving!
One poor ewe, with a single lamb, got fly strike. We treated her, but she became quite poorly and was unable to feed her week old lamb. She had no milk. So, I have become his second mum, a bottle of milk four times a day. The ewe has some milk now but not enough for him to really thrive. It is now three times a day and he is fat and happy!
Meanwhile…my new Portland ram, Snape, has been introduced to 30 ewes and is having a good time on Waddon Hill. There are plenty of blue bottoms. So we will be lambing again in about 5 months. The Highlands have been up on Crabb Hill doing a fantastic job with their conservation grazing. We brought them back down to Holes Ground about 10 days ago. They are used to moving up and down the bridleway and are settled in with enough grass for a few more weeks. We won’t have to start feeding haylage hopefully until sometime in mid-December. Stoke Knapp House is under scaffolding and getting the roof repaired. The builders couldn’t believe it had not already collapsed as much of the wood structure was rotten. But it was a very old roof!
A special Remembrance Sunday 11 November 1918....
The beautiful sunshine and warm temperatures of May continued all through the month of June…and July and…DROUGHT. Not a drop of rains for weeks. This “Green and Pleasant Land” turned brown. We made sure all the livestock had shade. And this is where they spent their days - in hedges and along the fencing where the trees provided some cover to keep them cooler.
August arrived, and the weather patterns changed. Rain arrived, lovely steady rain, no flooding, and the ground was able to soak it all in. The grass greened up and was growing once again. But the effect of the drought will be felt throughout the winter. In summer grass is cut and baled or moved into silage clamps, all ready to feed cattle throughout the winter months. We were able to bale up about half of the haylage we require. Now with the grass growing again we are getting more cut and will have plenty. But when the grass stopped growing many farmers had to use some of this winter’s feed already so there will be a real shortage of feed in over the coming months. And, of course arable crop yields are also down.
My Portland sheep and the seven Hebrideans stayed here at Lower Brimley Coombe through most of the summer. I did sell a dozen this year, going to two starter flocks. I was happy to sell as they were good sensible people who will take care of the sheep! And these two new flocks, both in Dorset, are thriving. Kingston Lacy, the National Trust property, is an especially good fit for Portlands, along with their Red Devon cattle herd. I also culled a few older barren ewes this summer. It was time, they were old and barren. So I will be putting 30 Portlands to the tup in late October.
We attended the Sherborne Show in the early part of summer, always a great day catching up with other Portland breeders in Dorset. We thought we’d be doing a few other shows until some of my sheep got Orf. It is an infection that looks like cold sores around their mouths and noses. It isn’t deadly, just uncomfortable for the sheep. Antibiotic spray helps, and I found a special mineral lick that seemed to help too. Only ten actually contracted it. I was quite lucky. Orf is highly contagious so all sheep had to stay on the farm, no showing.
Archie has thrown himself into restoring the fields at Stoke Knapp farm. What a huge job. There are less docks and nettles but a long way to go. The grass leys are looking good under his care. He is attacking the drainage systems in some of the very wet fields where land drains had completely broken down. The next big project is getting a proper water supply on the farm. Mr Tolley had only a couple of water troughs on the whole farm and we will expand that system.
The holiday cottage at Lower Brimley have been fully booked since early Spring and continuing right through the summer month. My guests have been lovely, tidy and enjoy the farm and West Dorset’s beauty. There are the occasional exceptions but that comes with the business. It does keep me busy, I am an expert cleaner! But I am really pleased with good reviews and especially love my repeat customers!
Melplash Show at the end of August was a wonderful way to end the summer. Good friends came along, and we had good chat with other breeders showing. Orf cleared up so I was able to bring two sheep, a ewe and her ram lamb. Both won Firsts and the ewe went on to win Breed Reserve champion. My Portland fleece was awarded a First, too.
The month of May began with warm sunshine and the arrival of a Poll Dorset Ram named Zachariah. We collected him from a farm on the Salisbury plain, not far from Stonehenge. The sweeping landscape is so different from West Dorset, with huge open fields. Much is owned by the military so you might see the occasional tank regiment crossing!
We took Zach directly to the Poll Dorset ewes and he got to work straight away. The ewes have all settled in well on Waddon Hill at Stoke Knapp Farm, quiet and very used to us walking through the flock for a twice daily check. We have electric fencing there, put up with a gadget that sits on the back of the ranger, making set up and dismantling reasonably simple. The three strands don’t get tangled but someone still has to walk behind, sticking in/pulling out the stakes. I do the driving.
The ewes will begin lambing in early October. Poll Dorsets can get in-lamb out of season. Most sheep breeds are ready for the tup in the Autumn so lambs are born in the Spring with the arrival of warm weather and new grass. But Poll Dorsets are fertile for breeding all year. Our ewes will lamb in late September through October. We will have plenty of grass at Stoke Knapp and can supplement with haylage. The lambs will be ready for market at four to five months for a premium price. Archie is focused on earning a living at all this farming.
The Portland lambs are growing and eating at the grass now while still running to mum for a drink. We have to be so vigilant at this time of the year, with the threat of fly strike. I’ve mentioned this before, horrid flies lay eggs on the sheep, the eggs hatch and maggots wriggle into the flesh. We sprayed the lambs with a preventative solution.
The HebrieanXPortland lambs are as frisky as ever. The are amazing escape artists, squeezing through any gap available. A quick clap of the hands and they all race back. They are odd looking lambs, some all black or all cream. Others have black legs and black masks, like a raccoon. We won't breed from the ewes, all will have a lovely life then be sold as meat.
The Polls and eighteen Portland shearlings at Stoke Knapp were shorn over the bank holiday weekend. What a day! We first set up pens in the enclosed yard behind the farmhouse. Josh, our shearing man, set up his kit and then it was time to bring the sheep in. The Portlands were two fields away, but some bucket shaking and calling by yours truly and they headed in the right direction into the yard. They were shorn, fleeces sorted and then walked back.
It was a very warm afternoon with a cloudless blue sky. Josh had his sheep dog with him, so he, Archie and Scott, a friend who can do just about any task on a farm, headed up onto Waddon hill to gather the Polls and walk them down. I was rather worried there would be sheep scattered everywhere, but in a short few minutes the sheep appeared at an opening in the hedgerow. Down they came, all quite unflustered. With just a little help from the dog they were manoeuvred across and down into the yard.
Then the really hard work began. Poll Dorsets are big strong sheep with a soft and fine but heavy fleece. It was a long afternoon especially for poor Josh. My job was sorting the fleeces. After a sheep is shorn the fleece is gathered up and spread out across a board. I pull off all the dirty bits, mostly around the edges, and pull off as much debris as I can - bits of tangled weed, bugs, etc. The fleece is folded in on itself, rolled up and placed in a big bag provided by the Wool Board. I kept back a couple of fleeces to possibly sell or enter in the fleece competition at Shows.
It was quite wonderful to see the yard full of livestock. Mr Tolley used to keep his cattle in the area all winter, right outside his back door. Eventually we will create a new yard well behind the house and old stone sheds, a bit tidier and less smelly for anyone living in the farmhouse!
Later in May two Highland calves made their appearance. Both were born in early hours of the morning. We have learned that delaying the tagging/castrating procedures is asking for trouble. We give them no more than 30 hours before the are grabbed, manhandled into the Ranger and transported into the holding area with gates firmly closed behind. We try to grab the calves when they are sleeping, with mother some distance away. Safer for all. And it is not so brutal as it may sound, they are already so strong at such a young age.
We also had to call the vet in for the castration for one of the HebrideanXPortland ram lambs. Archie usually does the castrating of the sheep but this one hadn't quite worked.
Meanwhile Archie is very busy with other jobs around the two farms. Fields needed harrowing and rolling. Now the grass is growing thick and fast. and we will be cutting and baling soon. We have plenty of good grass to sell on to a local dairy farmer, too. He will cut it as silage. We don’t fertilise our fields but spraying for docks and nettles is a must. There are fences to repair, trees which grew out of control at Stoke Knapp are coming down, then cut into big logs for later splitting.
And checking stock is all important at this time of year, making sure lambs are growing well. We spotted a ewe with a prolapse, very rare in Portlands. So we caught her and her lamb, not so easy with lambs scrambling all around the pen in which we caught them. Very relieved when we found the lamb tagged #99! I won’t breed from the ewe again, but sorted her with a prolapse spoon held with a harness. She can continue to feed her lamb until he is weaned. Always something new and interesting when it comes to sheep.
Spring has finally arrived! But what wet miserable weather for lambing, cold and very muddy ground. Lambs began arriving right on schedule on the 20th of March. The ewes were all under cover, although with the number lambing this year we expanded the lambing pen out from under the shed roof using hurdles. When the rains came the ewes were all quick to move to the dry section!
In the first week twenty three lambs arrived including one set of twins. It was a busy time. Dan and I took turns staying overnight in the barn. Dan has an office room inside, with a sink and small wood stove. With the addition of an air mattress on the floor and a big warm duvet, it was very comfortable. Being close to the ewes makes so much sense…getting up every couple of hours for a check then back to bed if quiet.
Most lambs arrived without any assistance. We always quickly bring the lamb around to the head of the ewe so she can begin licking and bonding, and wipe away any mucus around the lambs mouth making sure it is breathing well. We then move them to the bonding pens, iodine the navels, check the ewe's teats and then quietly watch to see the lamb get the first suck of colostrum. A couple of new mums were a bit confused, a few lambs were weak and a few needed a bit more attention. I was very lucky to have the space to keep them indoors as the wet cold weather continued, with soggy fields and little new grass.
The most ‘exciting’ birth was a breech. The ewe had not lambed before, she is small and was struggling. I reached in and found a tail, rather than the two front legs and nose. 7pm on a Friday night, Dan had arrived from a few days in London and he became my cheerleader and coach, not about to actually put his hand up the ewe! I had to very carefully get the back legs pulled around and out of the birth canal, without damaging the ewe’s womb. Once legs were out I pulled very quickly as in a breech the lamb may breathe in the fluids and die. Poor ewe, she was obviously in some pain as I manoeuvred the lamb. It was such a relief to see the lamb out and breathing. The ewe was completely unresponsive, with her eyes closed, and completely ignoring her mewing lamb. That is when I really panicked. A quick call to our brilliant vets and by the time I was in conversation the ewe had started to recover from the trauma and began licking her very lively lamb. A shot of pain relief also helped and she is a brilliant new mum.
The last Portland lambs were born on the 21st of April, the third set of twins to arrive. (Portlands usually have singles). The weather has finally cooperated, lambs and ewes are out on the growing grass. The lambs love to gang up and race up and down the field! Now to the Hebrideans. Dan’s seven Hebridean ewes were removed from his precious woodlands last autumn when they began stripping bark from his chestnut trees. He moved them into a field of Portland ewes and when the ram arrived they stayed. The ram was not at all interested and didn’t bother with them until he had taken care of the Portlands. So all the Hebridean lambs arrived at the tail end of lambing time.
They are gorgeous little mixed up colourful lambs, three solid black and the rest a mix of cream, grey, taupe, black and a bit of ginger. The ewes lambed out in the field, then Archie and I chased them down, grabbed lambs and brought them down to the bonding pens. We could then iodine the navels, castrate the ram lambs and make sure all was well. The Hebs were not thrilled with being penned up but we kept them in only a couple of days. They are brilliant mothers with fierce little lambs.
With all the lambing going on, I have also been very busy with the holiday cottages. They have been fully booked over the last couple of months. The children staying during the Easter holidays were totally entertained with the lambs. And Old Sawyers cottage in Stoke Abbott had a wonderful write-up on a popular travel blog, suitcasesandsandcastles.com, a top five English family holiday cottage!
And last weekend we collected forty two Poll Dorset ewes, a proper flock! They are grazing the fresh grass at Stoke Knapp Farm, especially enjoying lying under the trees in an overgrown old hedgerow. More about these lovely Native breed sheep next time.
This is my first report for 2018. Already March, we have survived the snows of storm Emma. The sheep took it in their stride but the cattle were quite unsettled. These Highlands have never seen snow. Spring is hopefully around the corner.
Lambing begins in about two weeks. The ewes are looking fine, and getting a bit of extra feed now. In the last month the lamb does a huge amount of growing inside the ewe.
We have added a few more acres to Lower Brimley. Last November Dan and Archie went to an auction and bought another farm. We became the proud owners of Stoke Knapp Farm, located just a few minutes north. I write this calmly, but my insides are still bubbling with this new adventure. No nice retirement for Dan and Jo, relaxing on a beach in Florida. An old house in a very poor state with crumbling old stone sheds along with the land will keep us right here in beautiful West Dorset. And both Hannah and Archie are truly excited about their future with the farm.
We have known Stoke Knapp and Mr Tolley since we first bought our little cottage in Stoke Abbott. Dudley was kind and good, quite a character, a special eccentric, and it was wonderful to know him. I will tell you more about him in future blogs. I never imagined we would ever own his farm. When he became quite ill I met his nieces in hospital, we have stayed in touch and I know they are also happy we acquired Stoke Knapp. It will stay a farm, much like Dudley cared for it, only a bit tidier!
There is so much to think about it is still overwhelming. We are already getting good advice from farmers around us. It is wonderful that many farmers in the area, some we don’t even know, have contacted us, glad we will farm the land and not turn it into a conference centre or wedding venue or housing scheme! We have 170 sheep grazing on the hill, brought in by a local sheep farmer. It does such good for the grass as it hadn't been grazed for quite some time. 20 of our shearling Portlands are also on Stoke Knapp. The fencing is in a very poor state so we use electric fencing to keep them in.
For the last eight weeks we have been cleaning out the farmyard and sheds, sorting rubbish and collecting huge quantities of scrap metal. It has only just begun.
We will farm the land in the most environmentally friendly way. There are miles of hedgerows to be laid. Our native breed and rare breed livestock are perfect grazers for the permanent grassland. Fields at Stoke Knapp are not quite so steep as those at Lower Brimley. The farm sits on and around Waddon Hill, the top of which is flat and over twenty acres. There are lovely views and a scheduled monument, Waddon Hill Roman Hill fort. There was also a quarry at one point and many old cottages in surrounding villages were built from Waddon Stone. We are thrilled and feel a real responsibility to take the best possible care of our new farm.
In the meantime, cattle need feeding!
Summer is a distant memory. After a busy autumn with tupping and settling the cattle in their winter pastures, we are ready for the cold weather routine. My four lovely young rams have all been hired out and are returning triumphant.
In late October we began preparing the ewes for the tup - the ram is put to work. He joins the ewes to get them in-lamb. This is the natural cycle which has gone on since sheep became domesticated. The ewes are ready for the rams in autumn so they lamb in spring when the grass is beginning to grow again. Today farmers can mess about with nature so ewes lamb earlier in the year. Lambs born in January are ready for the Easter market, where they fetch a premium price. But I stick with tradition and let nature take its course.
We collected my forty one ewes from two adjoining fields, got them all together and walked them down the lane to the holding area. They all happily follow when I shake the bucket full of sheep nuts. Archie and I then sent them down the sheep race, checking their tag number, marking them with a colour and separating them into two groups for the two rams. Portland sheep are a rare breed and although their population is rising, there is still a limited gene pool. We don’t want to breed them too closely. Fortunately there is software available to all Portland breeders which helps us determine if any ram is too closely related to a ewe. Very clever.
We gave each sheep a quick health check, trimmed their feet and then walked each group back to their autumn pastures. Finally we collected the two rams. In the past I have strapped a ‘raddle’ with a coloured crayon. This wraps around the chest of the ram and when he mounts the ewe it leaves a mark. But I have had a bit of trouble with the raddle loosening or chaffing. So this year we tried a different method, mixing a special powder with vegetable oil. This gets 'painted' all over the ram's chest and does leave a much bigger clearer mark. It needs renewing every few days but my rams are quite easy to catch. I approach with a bucket of nuts, they stick their head in, I grab a horn and yell for Archie (hiding behind a hedge) to come quickly before the ram pulls away. Definitely a two man job. More ‘paint’ applied and off they go. What a wonderful sight to see, a field of sheep with big colourful bums.
The Highland cattle are settled in their winter ground and being fed haylage already. We finally have bought a newer tractor which makes the task quicker and probably safer. (Our old 1987 John Deere is now a collectors item)! The calves have their own ‘creep’ feeder in the field, where they can get cattle nuts, too. In prior years we had been housing them to give them a good first winter. But this autumn they are still with their mums and getting that little bit extra, too. They come running when Archie arrives with the bucket of ‘cake’, ready to pour into their feeder. Merry Christmas!
Here it is, already the end of the summer. The new holiday cottages have been full and kept me very busy - the final calf born, a successful show season finished, haylage made for winter feed, honey bottled, and all the usual livestock ‘maintenance’.
Old Coombe Cottages were off to a flying start in early July. We have been pretty much fully booked since then, with the month ahead also busy. Old Sawyers, our thatched cottage in the village is also a holiday let so I have become a full time cleaner! I’m really proud of what we have accomplished with a sad old cattle shed. It was fun to decorate and furnish and our guests have been full of compliments. We let through www.holidaycottages.co.uk, who have been excellent.
Most of the cattle spent the summer up on Crabbe Hill, thriving on the rough grass, doing their bit for conservation by eating the Himalayan balsam and crushing the gorse. We moved them down the second week of August and our Highland bull, Frazzle, was finally united with 5 cows and a heifer. But a few days later we noticed he was lame. Back he came to the holding area, vet inspected, and he had basically sprained his ankle. (That is my rather simplistic explanation). Archie and I lured him into the crush every few days for an anti-inflammatory injection. Not fun. This week we moved him back, must to his delight. So calving will be over an extended period next spring and summer.
We attended a couple more shows this summer with the Portland sheep. The Rare Breed show at Singleton in West Sussex was quite a distance to travel but what a lovely show it was. We has a decent number of Portland Breeders there, good weather in a beautiful field on the grounds of the Weald and Down Museum. And our ram lamb got a First.
Melplash, our local show, was the highlight of the summer. I received a Third for my two year old ram, a First for my badly behaved ram lamb, a Third for the ewe lamb, and a First for my lovely shearling ewe Daphne. Minty, my fabulous halter training helper, showed her beautifully. And Daphne went on to win Best of Breed! So we got to strut around in the grand Parade. A great day to finish the season.
The weather has been up and down this summer, a couple of heat waves and then cooler rainy days in August. The grass has grown well and we managed to get plenty of bales of haylage for winter feeding. Archie has been taking care of the permanent grassland fields, topping and spot killing the nettle and docks. Dan has been busy with his bees, but was disappointed in the final yield - forty five jars of honey (still almost double last year). He had two swarms at the worst possible time. But he did get a Third at Melplash for a frame of honey!
I am now supplying two local restaurants with Highland beef and Portland hogget. That looks to expand with keen interest from a local gastro pub. And the September fete for Weldmar Hospice Trust in Dorchester will be serving Highland burgers. My wonderful mother was so kindly treated by hospice nurses in Florida. So I am donating in her memory, she would have loved my farm….
The last lamb was finally born on the 16th of May and here it is, over a month later already. The calves began arriving in early June. Well, two calves appeared within a day of each other, one coloured the traditional red and the other white, both bull calves. The third was stillborn, very sad and that has only happened once before about 10 years ago. The next was born in the middle of June, a lovely lively heifer calf, who was up and running with the other two within a day of her arrival. Still waiting for the fourth and final.
Tagging is always a challenge and I never manage to get any photos as it is all hands on, mum angry, calf mewing. We drive the ranger into the field, grab the calf, pull it quickly onboard, race into the holding area, shut the gate, with 5 bewildered and unhappy cows charging after us!
This year Archie got his two buddies to help, as we decided to ring castrate at the same time as tagging. In the past I have called in the vet when the bull calves are a few months old. All went well and the bull calves didn’t appear bothered at all. I just hope it worked.
We brought four sheep to the Sherborne Show at the end of May, two rams and two shearling ewes. Douglas the Labrador puppy came along, too. He is just six months old and quite large, an enthusiastic boy with a lovely temperament. (and in need of more training)!
We all had a good day. Both rams got a first in their classes, 'shearling' and 'older ram'. The shearing ewes were awarded a second and fourth. I now need to get on with halter training some lambs very soon.
The weather has been up and down, as usual. We had a few unusually cold days and recently a heat wave. The sheep were shorn just before the cold weather so had a few chilly days without their fleeces. Shearing day is always pretty exhausting, and I don’t even do the toughest job! We collect all the sheep, leaving the lambs behind. They are all brought down to the sheds, keeping the rams separate from the rest. After each sheep is shorn I scoop up the fleece, lay it out on a board, pick off the dirtiest bits and roll it up. By that time the next fleece is ready and so it goes.
All that lanolin does make for very soft hands at the end of the day. When the shearer finishes his job the sheep are loaded up and returned back to their fields. The ewes run off the trailer, the noise begins as mothers and babies greet each other. But there is always much confusion as the lambs cannot quite figure out who these funny ladies are, with no fleece!
The British Wool Board buys all the fleeces produced by sheep farmers. Wool is collected at designated centres, the wool is cleaned and then sold to buyers from all over the world. Their value has increased slightly in the last few years but no farmer can make a living from selling fleeces. It barely covers the cost of the shearing.
I am fortunate that Portland fleeces are popular with hand spinners. So I am able to sell the best fleeces for £5 or more. I will also enter my best fleece in agricultural show competitions. Last year I received a first at the Three Counties Show. My problem is choosing good fleeces!
There is always so much to learn when dealing with livestock. The internet is a good source when questions arise, but the best source is other sheep farmers. And thank goodness so many are ready to help and advise. So I have had some guidance from two fellow Portland breeders who happen to know so much about fleeces. Norma is also a hand spinner and will sell some of my fleeces at Wool festivals.
I mentioned several months ago that we received planning permission to convert a stone cattle shed into two holiday cottages. We are nearing completion, and lately this has occupied so much of my time. We were very fortunate to find a super team of builders, and that is not an exaggeration. The two cottages are looking very smart and I hope to have holiday guests in early July. This provides a new income stream for the farm. And I am now selling some of my beef and hogget/mutton to a couple of very nice restaurants in the area and hoping to expand on that.
About a week before moving the ewes into the shed Archie spotted an unwell ewe first thing in the morning. She had prolapsed. This means her vagina and bladder were pushed out, a deep red ball was exposed at her backside. It rarely happens with Portlands. She was an older ewe and we quickly attended to her, carefully pushing things back in, and applying a gadget like a harness that prevents it all coming back out again. We put her in a pen but she was very unsettled. Very quickly I could see she was ill and called the vet. The ewe was given penicillin but deteriorated with a high temperature. And we lost her even before lambing began.
On April 4th the first lamb was born - a nice normal delivery, meaning two little feet and a nose make an appearance. The ewe sometimes pushes the lambs out quite quickly. Others struggle for quite a while, but as long as progress is made I don’t interfere. So lambs began to arrive, the routine began. Lambs are born in the open shed. The pair are moved into a bonding pen for a couple of days. They then go out into a small paddock just behind the barn where mum can enjoy eating fresh grass again, After another day or two they join the others in the bigger field. The lambs grow in confidence, racing around the field like naughty children, ignoring their mothers' calls!
This year I stayed overnight in the barn right next to the shed. This was not a hardship! Dan has a lovely office room in the building with a small wood stove, sink, fridge, etc. WiFi, too. There is a rug on the floor and a couple of chairs. He calls it ‘the bothy’ and it is quite cosy. So I made myself up a comfy bed on the floor and spent my evenings and nights there. When Dan arrived from London for the weekends he took over. Much easier to pop out for checks through the night and get right back to sleep if all was quiet. And nice to make a cup of tea at 3 am while waiting for a ewe to give birth!
About a week into lambing I lost four lambs, right in a row. The ewes were all first timers, lambs were very small and all the ewes had problems with their udders. Sometimes the first bit of colostrum can be quite thick. But this colostrum was thicker than vaseline and completely sticky. At first we thought the ewe had mastitis, an infected udder. I could not even strip any out to feed the lamb myself. (Tubing the lamb - inserting a small rubber tube down the lamb’s throat and slowly feed the lamb directly into the stomach).The vet was called and had never seen such a thing. The mothers lost complete interest in their lambs, mostly ignoring them. They obviously felt very unwell. Oxytocin was applied, a drug which brings on milk. I tried like crazy to save the lambs, tubing through the night and the next day but they never thrived. It was all quite heartbreaking.
I have my theory, although some disagree and the vets had never seen such a thing, and consulted many colleagues. I think these four young ewes went into the shed, ate the hay but never had a drink of water over the next 7-9 days. There was a trough and buckets of water available, but I think they became intensely dehydrated. I did carefully pour water down their throats as one of the treatments. All did come into normal milk about 4-5 days after lambing by by then it was too late.
To our great relief this condition was not repeated. In fact I had to intervene only once with a lamb stuck with only the nose appearing. I was able to get the legs positioned and out came the lamb. All the other births were straightforward. Ewes happy, Jo happy. I watch the first time mums quite carefully as they can be a bit unsure about this new little life mewing and trying to poke around looking for the teats. It is always the nicest feeling to see and hear the sucking and lambs getting their fill of colostrum. Then it’s back to bed!
I did have a real scare with one little ram lamb who was strong and healthy and went as normal from the bonding pen to the little paddock to the field over four days. We noticed the lamb on day five was very lethargic so I brought the pair back inside. The lamb was weak and not sucking. I was determined not to lose him. He had watery mouth disease, an infection in his gut. Usually lambs get this in the first day or two, from a dirty lambing area. My pens are clean and disinfected and I am quite sure he picked up something outside. I spent the next 2 days and nights milking a very confused mother and tubing the baby. I also collected some tiny antibiotic pills from the vet which I put down his throat. It was a good moment when Dan finally saw him up and sucking again. He lives!!
I have twenty one lambs running around the field now, two ewes still to lamb. The weather has been wonderful, the grass is growing and ewes are full of milk. This has been a difficult lambing season, losing four lambs. Now I need to pay a bit of attention to five highland cattle ready to calve!
Although many lambs have already arrived on other farms, I follow the traditional calendar, putting the ram with the ewes on the fifth of November so lambing begins on the first of April. I did miss that by a few days so my lambs should begin arriving tomorrow. Of course, it is all unpredictable and I will be checking through the night.
This last month we have been getting ready. The five young highland steers finally rejoined the rest of the cattle after a cosy few months getting fat in the shed.
Archie spent a long day cleaning out the smelly bedding, then spraying down and disinfecting. He had the shed spotless, ready for the ewes.
Meanwhile we vaccinated the ewes and all the rest of the Portlands with Heptavac P which prevents some nasty diseases. The also needed worming.
I had all the ewes crutched. A local lad came and sheared them around their backsides and tails. It helps me see what is going on and they don’t get as messy during the birthing process.
We then moved them down to the farmyard and they settled into the small field behind the barn for a couple of days, before finally wandering into their very clean and cosy lambing shed.
The grass has been growing and I hate mowing the lawn. Archie set up some electric fencing and we brought down four one year old ewe lambs to stay in our front garden for a while. It was all going so well until the friskiest of the group got a mild shock and then proceeded to fight back, attacking the fencing. They all bolted out and had a lovely time racing around the garden and around to the back of the house. After some frantic chasing we managed to corner them. They were popped into the empty dog kennel, we returned three to the re-set fenced area and put the wild one back to the field. There has been no more trouble and I think the three rather enjoy their position observing all the comings and goings around the house. They are doing an amazing job eating the grass and we’ll expand their territory as the days go by.
Jo Stover has daily adventures on her small farm, together with her Highland cattle and Portland sheep, bees, a few hens, dogs, and some two-legged family and friends.