On Saturday morning I was up by 7am. By 7.30 I’d cleaned out the chickens, fed and watered them, and was in the kitchen getting breakfast and making up the largest flask of coffee I could. This was lambing day! I’d been looking forward to this since I’d booked it and paid my £50 way back in November. A couple of weeks ago I’d received a reminder email from Mark at Broomfield (part of Derby College), giving full details of what we’d cover, instructions about appropriate clothing and footwear, and reminding us to take a packed lunch since the canteen would be shut.
I arrived on time for the 10am start and, after some initial awkwardness (something akin to being in a lift), introduced myself to my fellow would-be lambers. We were quite an assorted bunch; a couple of A-level students who wanted to be vets, one man who had a smallholding, and half a dozen middle-aged women whose small hands were in demand by farmers at lambing time for reasons I hope I don’t need to explain!
We started with a fairly brief (30 to 40 minutes) classroom introduction to some basics, during which I grabbed a coffee from my flask, and were provided with useful handouts detailing management of ewes, preparing for lambing, what facilities are required, managing newborn lambs, feeding, etc. I also brought home a ‘Sheep Gestation Table’. Sheep have a 145 day gestation period so if you know what date your ewes were tupped (i.e. serviced by a ram, also known as a tup), the table tells you when the lambs are expected. Hygiene is a really big deal in lambing so Mark stressed the importance of dipping our feet in the disinfectant everytime we moved in or out of the lambing sheds. Then it was off for a quick ride round the site and to the sheds on a tractor trailer, which was fun if a little chilly.
At the lambing sheds we were hit by the first upset of the day; a dead lamb which had been aborted. It looked as if it hadn’t formed quite properly and couldn’t possibly have survived. It was sad but, as the shepherd pointed out, it happens, and at least the ewe had another two lambs. It wasn’t long before we saw lambs actually being born. The two young students had the opportunity to feel inside a ewe to see if they could feel the head of the lamb. Its feet should have been pointing forwards, under its chin but they weren’t so it was a case of feeling around in the dark to try to right them. Over the course of the day we had plenty of opportunity to get involved, though there was no further need to intervene in that way. As Mr P so eloquently put it, there was no need for me to “put my mitt up a ewe’s no-no”! However, I did get involved in saving a lamb’s life when we came across a lamb which had been born inside the sac full of amniotic fluid. Effectively, it was drowning. The shepherd broke the sac and I had the task of rubbing the lamb’s chest hard with clean straw in an effort to get it breathing. This didn’t work so I then had to pick the lamb up by its back legs and swing it backwards and forwards before letting it drop to the floor quite hard to try to clear its airways. If it sounds brutal, it is but it’s about saving the lamb so the end justifies the means. At this point there were signs of it beginning to breathe so the shepherd used a bit of straw to ‘tickle’ the lamb’s nose – this helps to make them sneeze and clear out any remaining fluid. He also inserted a feeding tube into the lamb’s lungs and blew – very gently, just tiny little puffs – to get extra air into it. Eventually this seemed to get the lamb breathing – I just hope it survived the crucial first 48 hours.
Over the course of the day we had the chance to try all sorts of useful skills; ear-tagging, tailing (docking), and castrating. Ear-tagging is a legal requirement and also helps the shepherd keep track of which lambs were fathered by which ram – this is to avoid inbreeding in the future. Tails are docked to help prevent disease, and castration is performed on male lambs which are destined for the chop! Both these latter two processes are done using a special rubber band applied with a metal gadget that stretches it then releases it once it’s been fitted over the necessary area. This cuts off the blood supply to the unwanted part, causing it to die and eventually fall off. The lambs don’t seem to feel any ill-effect or pain from this. The hardest part is getting them to stay still long enough to do it, as they wriggle about like babies!
There was also the opportunity to feed the lambs, trim the ewes’ feet, learn how to get ewes to move where you want them to by holding their lamb, walking backwards, and making little bleating noises (I did ask the shepherd if he was just having a laugh at our expense)! We learned how to catch the ewes and lambs using a crook – I’d always thought it was just a big walking stick. Importantly, we also got to hold the lambs and get a bit of a cuddle.
Around 4.30pm I was back in my car on my way home, exhausted but delighted with the day and what I’d learned and achieved. If you’re thinking of doing a lambing course – no matter what the reason – I would definitely recommend the one day course at Derby College, Broomfield Campus. It was the best £50 I’ve ever spent. All I need now is to get some practice in with a couple of local farmers!