How to be a Shepherdess!
Lambing. What’s it all about?
At this crazy time of coronavirus, many of us are finding ourselves in very difficult and challenging situations. Maybe you’ve been furloughed or maybe you’ve been completely laid off. Maybe you’re still receiving an income but are desperate to get involved and ‘do your bit’ to help the nation in a key worker role. Over recent weeks, farms have been struggling to secure a substantial amount of workers to see us through these trying few months. An article published by Country Living highlighted the need for an increase in farm workers in both arable and livestock farms and how you can apply for these roles;
For anyone potentially looking for some extra work in a key worker role in the food supply chain this Spring / Summer and pining for some insider information on what a job in farming really looks like, I’ve put together a post highlighting a few points.
For the past few years now, I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity of working on a beautiful Northumbrian farm as a lambing assistant. Yes a lambing assistant! You’re probably thinking one of two things... Either, awwww that must be so cute, playing with all of the skippidy little lambs OR ewwww that must be pretty gross. So with this said, I thought I would write about what it is, the job of a lambing assistant / shepherdess actually entails!
awwww or ewwww?
So a bit of background. This opportunity first came about for me when I was studying at University. I was a member of the Newcastle Agrics, Newcastle University Agriculture Society. Often, jobs would be posted on the Agrics facebook page for anyone leaving uni and passing on roles to fellow students, these would range from pea farmers to ploughers to lambing assistants. One day I came across a post requesting a lambing assistant on a farm very close to my home address for 2 weeks in the easter break, so I decided to apply and luckily enough I was successful. Turn the clock forward 3 years and I’m still going strong. Quite honestly lambing is one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever worked and that is why I keep going back! What’s more is that the high standard of animal welfare on the farm is impeccable, and this is reflected in them holding contracts with both Waitrose and M&S.
So what’s it all about?
Female sheep, ewe’s come into season each autumn, they mate with male sheep, tups, and their pregnancy lasts around 5 months. It is possible to tell when a ewe has been impregnated as the tups are sprayed with a dye which then rubs off onto the ewes back end when the tup has had his way with her. Several weeks after, the ewes are put through an ultrasound to determine how many lambs they are expecting. Singles, twins and triplets are the most common, very occasionally you may expect quadruplets. It’s important to determine this as, ewes expecting triplets or quads will be subject to extra special treatment and an increase in feed and vitamins in order to help support them through the pregnancy as well as afterwards, helping them to produce enough milk and be strong enough to look after their lambs post birth. Generally farms will go through this whole process on the same dates each year.
The farm I work at has 850 ewes. The breeds of these sheep are primarily black faced Suffolk’s and black and white spot faced Mule’s. Thrown in are a handful of traditional white faced, Texel’s and a couple of rare breed Hebridean‘s. Together this colourful flock expect their new babies on the last week of March to the first week of April each year.
Mixed mule’s, suffolk’s and texel’s.
There are 2 widely accepted methods of lambing. Indoor and outdoor. We use the indoor method which is generally a much higher work load but results in a much better standard of welfare and long term wellbeing of the ewes and their lambs.
Lambing starts when the first ewe lambs out in the field. The other ewes are then rounded up and brought in from the fields, into large sheds. Within these sheds, a temporary maze of small pens surround a large open expanse in which the soon-to-be mums live in the days leading up to the birth of their new babies. Generally the sheep are split up into sections/sheds. Mixed singles, mule twins, suffolk twins and mixed triplets/quads. Again it is important to section off the triplets and quads as they require extra feed and attention throughout the day.
Throughout the course of a lambing season, there are several techniques that are used to achieve the best outcome for both ewes and lambs. Of course every lamb needs a mummy and the aim of the whole process is to try and support this relationship as best as possible but sometimes ewes may reject their lambs and this, if ignored can quite quickly lead to them killing their lambs. Sometimes lambs don’t take to their mothers and sometimes a ewe can’t cope with producing enough milk or perhaps isn’t strong enough to look after more than one or two lambs and thus lambs can be ‘adopted’ by other ewes or if all else fails they go into the ‘pets’. Below I have outlined a few of these processes as well as some key terms.
If perhaps a lamb is born and the ewe rejects it, this is obvious as she quite quickly starts head butting it, kicking it and sometimes she may even lie on it to try and kill it. Depending on the severity, the ewe and her lambs may be placed in something called the ‘adopters’. A ewe could also be placed into the adopters if she only has one or no lambs because they may have died if she‘s had a bad pregnancy. She then may ‘adopt‘ new lambs. It is good practice to send sheep back into the field with at least 2 lambs.
The adopters work by placing a ewe in a pen in which her head is placed into a device which means she is completely able to move her head and body, eat and drink as normal but she is unable to look round at her lambs. The lambs are placed within the pen (either her original lambs or sometimes a lamb which is not hers but which has been taken off another ewe who cannot cope with the amount of lambs she has). Over the course of several days the lambs will suckle milk from the ewe and eventually they will start to have the smell of their (new) mother by which period she is set free from the device and almost always accepts the lambs. Together they are then able to move out into the field.
A little lamb surfing on top of his new mum.
A rub on is when a ewe gives birth to one or no lambs potentially due to the death of some or all of her lambs or simply because she is only having one lamb. If this is the case, sometimes it is possible to catch the ewe at this time and ‘rub on’ a new lamb, usually one that may have been rejected by its original mother or one which has been taken off a ewe who can’t cope with it. At this point the new lamb is rubbed and covered in the lovely gory juices of the birth so that it smells like the mother and generally if done quick enough, the ewe will accept a new lamb as her own. When carrying this process out, it is important to cover the ewe‘s eyes so she can’t see a new lamb being brought over to her.
The pets pen is the last resort of survival for a little lamb. So called because these little guys are essentially hand reared by humans as if they were pets. One of the things I love the most about working on this particular farm is that every lamb gets a second chance. A lot of farms don’t have a pets pen and the sad reality is that those poor little lambs are often just left to die. Here everyone gets a fighting chance!
The pets is where lambs who maybe haven’t got off to the best start, who haven’t perhaps quite got the hang of suckling milk from their mum will go. This is also where lambs who may have been taken off mothers who cant cope, will go if they haven’t been rubbed on or put into an adopters that day.
Lambs who go into the pets will start off being bottle fed so they can get used to suckling a rubber teat. They will then be taught to suck from a milk maid machine, a piece of equipment which mixes and heats powdered milk and passes it to tubes connected to rubber teats attached to a wall in the pets pen. Some lambs take longer than others to get the hang of this and it’s important to help each lamb learn. This is done by holding the lamb in place with it‘s mouth on the teat and then squeezing some milk into the lambs mouth. Eventually they should be able to do this themselves, most of the time it’s instinct.
The pets pen.
A first time mother. Often they are smaller than fully grown ewes. They are quite scatty and afraid. Occasionally when a hog lambs, she is so scared she will run away from her lambs as she doesn’t understand what has happened. At this point you must catch her with a stick and walk her into a pen with her new lambs.
A second time mother. Often still a little cautious but not as hard to handle as a hog.
A day in the life
A typical day in the life of a lambing assistant would look something like this...
7.00am head out to the farmyard and check to see if anyone has lambed. Generally there will be about 4 - 5. It’s important to pen sheep up as soon as you notice they have lambed. This is for a few reasons; so ewes can bond with their lambs, so other ewes don’t steal another ewe’s lambs (especially from hogs who are often a bit confused), to avoid a mix up between lambs and ewes and also to attend to any individual treatment that may be required by lambs or ewes.
It’s key to continuously assess and keep an eye out for any ewes who are perhaps having any problematic births. A head and 2 legs is the textbook sight you should see coming when a ewe is lambing. More often than not, ewes will lamb but themselves completely unaided but occasionally they may need a helping hand. I’d say, you see a hung lamb where only a head is coming or even a tail when the back end is coming, you need to intervene. No matter what, if the lamb is coming forward, you need at least one front leg and a head and if the lamb is coming backwards you need both back legs. Any other combination and the lamb will not come right and you are potentially risking causing damage or even death to the lamb and causing long term internal damage to the ewe. It is therefore required to catch the ewe, lie her down and get stuck in. You need to rearrange the lamb’s legs inside of its mother so they match a winning combination. This could mean that you have to actually push the lamb back inside in order to get the legs in a better position to then pull the lamb out. This is not always easy, especially when the ewe is usually still pushing whilst your hand is inside her and grinding against her pelvic bones. You need to be careful as there is potential here to have your fingers broken!
Sometimes when the lamb has been hung for a while, their head swells up and they start to suffocate, usually because they’re a little too large for the ewe to push out unaided. This is why it’s vital to keep an eye on your sheep all throughout the day and night, to avoid any unnecessary deaths. When you successfully birth a hung lamb, most of the time they will still be alive and at this point you need to hold the lamb by the back legs and swing them back and forth to allow the blood to start flowing. Afterwards, place the lamb in front of its mother where she will start licking the amniotic sac away and bond with her lamb. Leave them for a few moments before putting them into a pen together.
A hung lamb, now thriving!
Often with troublesome births or with triplets or quads it’s essential to start them off by giving them a tube of colostrum milk, the first portion of milk which comes before normal milk, containing a number of antibodies to help aid early development of the lamb. Actually we use cows colostrum as it’s slightly more rich in nutrients and it is gifted from a local farm. We heat a portion of this up and administer to the lambs via a tube which is placed down the lambs throat in order to get it straight into the system.
A triplet receiving colostrum.
Every once in a while you may come across a ewe who has gone through a complicated pregnancy and unfortunately her lambs have died inside of her. Usually she will present herself to you as she will lie down for a few days and not move out of the sheds at feeding time. It is important to induce the birth of the dead and usually rotten lambs inside of the ewe in order to prevent her from dying as well. This is not a nice task but it is an important one and often the lambs have been dead for a while meaning that they aren’t quite as robust as a live lamb and sometimes this results in them coming out in bits. Once you’ve completed this gruelling task, the ewe needs to be treated with a calcium and vitamin rich concoction which will hopefully give her the energy to recover completely.
As soon as a ewe has had all of her expected lambs (you can tell this by the colour of the dot on her back which will be sprayed after scanning), it is vital to ’do the naval’ which is essentially; cutting any excess umbilical cord to a length which won’t cause any entanglement, spray with a purple sterilent spray and then inject a leg with a shot of penicillin to prevent any possible infection.
Mother and babies are doing fine.
8.00am. Once you’ve successfully penned up any new families, it’s time to get on with breakfast. On a morning, everone gets fed. This is done by filling several troughs in the farmyard with a multivitamin enriched grain feed. We then let the sheep out of their large pens, one group at a time. Whilst they are outside, every ewe within a small pen is given a bowl of vitamin enriched pellets to help them produce milk and recover quickly after giving birth. They also get a generous handful of fresh compact grass, silage, as well as a bucket of water. Once breakfast is over, all of the sheep return to their respcetive pens.
10.00am is the time where many of the movements start to happen. If the weather is good and the ewes and her lambs are strong and healthy, they will be moved out into the field to roam free where they belong. If the weather is cold and wet however, ewes and lambs will be moved out of their small pens and into a larger indoor pen which will allow them to be more comfortable until the weather is good enough for them to move into the field. Ewes and lambs are spray painted with a number and lambs tails are ringed before they are allowed to move into the field. If the ewe has had a very successful pregnancy and her female lambs are strong and healthy, they will have their ears clipped as a mark that they should return the following year as new mothers.
A happy lamby ready to start his new life in the field.
Movements are usually done by going from pen to pen one at a time, taking the lambs and allowing the ewes to follow onto a trailer. As sheep don’t have the best foreword vision, it’s important to allow the ewe a few seconds to realise her lambs are now on the move. Making lamb noises, as silly as it sounds is key to helping the ewe establish where you and her lambs are.
Some happy customers returned to the field.
12.00am. Once all marked families are where they should be and out of small pens, the pens are then disinfected one by one and fresh straw bedding is placed in the pen for the next little family to have a comfortable stay. On average, each little family will stay in their small pen for around 12-24 hours before they are moved into the field. The sooner they go into the field, the better and the happier they will be.
Large pens are also filled with new straw bedding, a fresh bail of silage and if it needs replacing, a large tub of crystalyx, a high energy mineral lick for the ewes to nibble as and when they feel like it. All large pens have a constant supply of water via a water trough in each corner.
2.00pm. After lunch we check to see if anyone has lambed and move anything else that may need it. We then refill any water buckets that may need replenishes and lastly check on the pets to make sure they’re all keeping well.
4.00pm hits and it’s time to start feeding again. Only the triplets pen is let out into the farm yard for another grain feed but every ewe in a small pen must be fed with a bowl of pellets, a handful of silage and a fresh bucket of water.
Dinner time in the mule twins shed.
Over the next several hours, it’s a case of keeping an eye on everything.
Usually I would head out again at 8pm and 10pm for about an hour each time. When it’s quieter, the sheep start to lamb more and so during these periods it’s all about keeping on top of penning them up and doing navals aswell as keeping an eye out for any tricky births that may need assistance.
Essentially that’s it! Although it’s not always nice to think about the end point of these little lambies journey. It’s amazing to be a part of the start of their life, offering them a comfortable, enjoyable and healthy life, short lived though it may be. For as long as we as humans continue to eat meat, we always need to remember that animals are living things just like us, and respect is key in helping ensure their lives are as happy and as humane as possible.