The ewes and lambs are out of the shed and into the field; it’s all over for another year. I have recorded all the births, notified the Portland Breeders Flock Book, tagged all lambs to comply with government requirements, and updated all my own record keeping. It is very satisfying to see the lambs running and jumping and playing. Not just satisfying, absolute bliss to watch!
Lamb with the funny tongue is sorted and now leading the pack. Sometimes a tongue can get quite swollen if it is sticking out during the birth. (Do human babies do this?) It usually sorts itself within a couple of hours. But not this guy. It was hanging out, long and pink, and he couldn’t quite get the teat to stay in his mouth. I realised after a few hours he was getting weak, his tummy was quite empty. The tubing continued for a couple of days, about every four hours. He tucked his head up under mum, I milked her and then tubed him. He got strong and although the tongue continued to flap about, he finally figured out how to do it all by himself. He makes quite a slurpy noise but gets the job done.
Six calves have arrived, one older cow, Karen, still to go. Highland mothers are so attentive and affectionate with their babies. They still spend time every day licking them, and when anyone approaches they move around to hide the calf. The cows know me and my loud voice so I can get quite close as I chatter away to them.
I did have a worry with calf #5. Nini is a rather small cow and she had a very long legged calf. A stupid long legged bull calf that couldn’t figure out where the teats were. Highlands are tough. A newborn dairy calf needs colostrum within about 12 hours or survival rates plummet. A highland calf can go much longer. But we realised at the end of the day that he wasn’t sucking and the poor mum’s udders were blown up like a hot air balloon.
I called the cattle into the holding area, then shoved all but Nini and her calf back out. With a bucket of cow cake I moved Nini into the crush and caught her. Dan and I opened the crush in such a way that we could shove the bull calf onto the teat, holding his head down. He still didn’t get it, so we milked the very frustrated mum, transferred milk to a bottle with a rubber teat and calf sucked it up fast. Now when we tried again, stuffing his thick head into the teats, he grabbed them and sucked away. Moved him to the other side and he sucked again. Yes!
The vet later told me that Big Bull calves are renowned for their stupidity. So we kept the two of them in the holding area for a couple of days, just to make sure he was fit and healthy.
I cannot forget to mention the bluebells. West Dorset is a destination point when it comes to bluebell woods. They only last a few weeks. And we have our very own bluebell wood all around. Dan’s beautifully restored and flourishing woodlands are covered with a blue carpet!
I am completely obsessed with my sheep at lambing. I LOVE them! We do have our moments, when I feel very tired and stupidly worried, usually over nothing serious at all. But it is wonderful to see healthy lambs arrive and the ewe immediately instinctively licking and bonding with her baby. Then, sometimes quite quickly, other times rather slowly, the lamb struggles to stand and somehow makes its way to the teats for that first big drink of colostrum.
With new life on the farm also comes death. A ewe developed complications, the lamb was born dead. The ewe had internal problems so the vet was called and she was put down. It is awful to see an animal suffering and I wonder if I could have done something to prevent the deaths.
I took two wethers (castrated rams) off to the abattoir. But this part of the life/death cycle doesn’t bother me. I know my livestock live a decent life, and I am fortunate to have small family-run slaughterhouse only 30 minutes way.
On Thursday I collected 40 kilos of beautiful hogget from the butcher. ‘Lamb’ is under one year. ‘Hogget' is one to two years old, ‘Mutton’ is over two years. Portland sheep are small and slow maturing, not ready for market until at least a year old, and better at eighteen months to two years. It has a really excellent flavour but is not strong and greasy. London butchers charge a fortune for it.
Lambs have continued to arrive and now there are only three ewes waiting to lamb. Thirty ewes and lambs are out in the field now. Before they go out we tag their ears, give ewe and lamb a matching number and trim the ewe's feet. Evenings are lovely. The lambs start racing around in a big gang, completely ignoring their bleating mothers calling them. It is a 5 o’clock ritual!
I have one ram lamb with a problem tongue. It is swollen and hangs out and he cannot properly suck the teats. He will stay in the bonding pen with his mum until we get it sorted. I milk the ewe every four hours then put a soft rubber tube down the lamb’s throat and syringe in the milk. He is doing well, but it is frustrating for all three of us.
And still awaiting the arrival of four highland calves...
More lambs arriving, with twins on Friday night. Portland sheep normally have singles but these twins weren’t a complete surprise because the ewe had been uncomfortable for days and was very big across. The first was another head-only presentation, but sorted quickly and out he came. The next one arrived 30 minutes later, when I received a panicked phone call from Dan, as I had gone back to the house for a cup of tea. The second ram lamb was so tiny, but he is doing well. Portlands are very good mothers, with plenty of milk for two.
The bonding shed looks like a Mother and Baby group with the lambs very playful after just a couple of days. I like to put them out on a warm sunny day but the weekend weather didn’t cooperate. We let out five ewes and their lambs together and of course they are fine. I mark ewe and lamb with a matching number. I hope it fades quickly on #5! The field has good grass for the ewes, and lambs are racing about together even though it became cold and windy later in the day.
The Highland cows finally decided to get in on the act and two calves were born this weekend, too. Both were born in the early morning hours to first-time mums. Not a bit of a problem. Highland cows are truly the best mothers around, and you had better watch out if you get too close. They are very protective and even my sweetest cows will shake their head if you have crossed the line. That makes tagging the calves a real challenge!
Every cow born in the UK must have a numbered eartag inserted within the first twenty days. Sheep must all be eartagged now, too. This is a ruling from the EU, but I am quite sure it is completely ignored by the rest of Europe. After tagging all cattle are issued with their own passport. Most Americans don’t have a passport while EVERY British cow has one.
We have learned the hard way that time is of the essence. Tag Highland calves within 48 hours of birth. After that they get REALLY strong. Sunday morning I called all the cows into the holding area with the shaking bucket. Most came running, one mother held back. So we had one calf on its own. Dan and Richard appeared on the scene, I had cornered the confused calf, Richard grabbed him and attached the tags in each ear. I don’t have a strong enough grip for the tool that inserts the plastic tag into the ear. We then managed to get the other calf into a separate part of the holding area, tagged her quickly before mother could figure out where she went. Five to go.
It all kicked off on Monday. The first lamb, a ram lamb arrived. That was early in the morning, and the second, a ewe lamb, was born in the evening. So good to have it all underway. Then on Wednesday three more arrived. The first two deliveries were straightforward, mother nature in charge. I took charge for the third, as head and one leg foot presented. The ewe was reasonably cooperative and I was able to slip my hand in and retrieve and position the other leg.
I am fortunate enough to have a shed where my sheep stay until they lamb, and for a few days after, together with their lamb in a bonding pen. Some farmers lamb outdoors, and are very successful. But it is nicer for the shepherd to be under a roof.
I check the sheep several times a day, then get up about 1 to 2 am, then up at 5. I now have two cameras installed that connect to my iPhone, set up yesterday by Archie. The picture is pretty good, even in the dark, and it may save me a late night wander down to the shed.
Last night Archie looked in about midnight, no activity, then I checked the iPhone at 2.30. Yikes, I jumped out of bed and hustled down. My ewe, Satsuma, was lambing but only the head was presenting. Normally there should be two feet and a head. The ewe was not happy. I tackled her, got her down and managed to get a leg out. She pushed and we delivered, with the other leg pointed back but okay. There is a lovely happy feeling when it all works out…but then mum decided she didn’t want that lamb to suck. She was probably a bit uncomfortable after my intervention. (I do have small hands)!
After lambs are born mother gets busy licking and licking, mewing and baaing. Lambs mew back. The the little lambs rock and struggle and work so hard to stand up. Mother Nature kicks in and the lamb staggers and trips and finally gets all the legs going the right way, back to the underbelly of mum. Then they bump up on the udders and finally, whew, find the teat. I love to hear that quiet sucky noise when the milk starts to flow.
But after all that effort, my last tired fed up ewe started butting her lamb away every time she tried to stagger back toward the teats. I had to intervene, held Satsuma quite firmly and the little one was able to latch on. She got a good tummy full of the colostrum so I knew she was okay. But mum continued to try to butt her.
I then held the lamb and squirted her from the teats. Not easy at 3.30 am, feeling slightly desperate. Ewe then licked her lamb and I hoped she’d respond with a bit more care. She didn’t until she finally cleansed about 6 am and then completely relaxed when the afterbirth was out. The lamb was always safe as I stayed nearby and she is having a wonderful first day with her loving mum.
Fifteen more to lamb…
In the meantime, there was plenty to do. Over the Easter holiday weekend we moved the four calves out of the shed. Although reasonably halter trained we decided it would be quicker to load them on the cattle trailer and drive them to the field. And it was quite quick. As soon as I popped into the front end of the trailer and shook a bucket they all jumped on. I then jumped out of the door and off we drove.
When we opened the back of the cattle trailer five minutes later the calves were a bit hesitant. One finally got brave and stepped down on the grass, the others following and then they exploded! It was all so exciting - running around the field, kicking their legs in the air like little lambs! The play continued for quite a while and then it was all about some serious grass eating. And when I go visit them they come up to me when I call, my lovely little coos.
Next project was cleaning out the calf shed in preparation for lambing. This takes big equipment, the digger and the big trailer to heave the mess into. Luckily this was a job for Dan and Richard. It was surprisingly quick, all cleared out, then Dan went in and hosed and then disinfected. I had the easy job of putting down plenty of fresh straw, all ready for the ewes.
We also shifted the seven heavily pregnant highland cows out of the field they were sharing with the bull and three bullocks. They are now all together near the house so I can check them quite easily, peaking out the window first thing in the morning.
Archie came home for the Easter holidays and got harrowing, now that we have had some dry weather. I just hope the drier weather continues so he can get all the harrowing and rolling done before his last term at university starts.
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.