Looking after lambs and mothers

April can be a cruel month

The snow flurries of the last couple of days have followed on from a fairly mild and dry spring. So, there has been a good start for lambs, but a bit of a shock with a cold north wind that has brought hail, snow and sub-zero temperatures back to the uplands.

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When we were with Harry and Mary Hutchinson at Uldale last week, Harry said to me that the first challenge is to make sure the lambs are alive, and then it’s about keeping the ewes alive. Sheep tend to give their best to their lambs during pregnancy and need to be well cared for after the birth. In the uplands, where the sheep lamb outside on fells that are exposed to whatever weather is hurled at them, this task begins with keeping the ewes well fed, and keeping a constant eye on them.

When Rob and I arrived at Uldale early in the morning, Mary walked over to us from the yard. We ask how it’s been going. She tells about the day before, and her words are a small litany of struggles. Mary is in charge of the ‘hospital’ shed – Harry believes she is the best at mothering the lambs. So while Harry checks the ewes and lambs in the fields, Mary has the job of dealing with problems, and she has a set of twins snuggled up in a bed of hay – their mother was ill and didn’t survive the birth – and a single lamb that needs extra care, the smaller of the pair. There’s another lamb in snoozing in a feed tup laid inside another box that’s being gently heated. It is little more than a handful – much smaller than the plump lambs that are born full term without problems, and bounce around in the field just hours after birth.

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Some illnesses are passed on to the pregnant ewes by corvids (the crow family).  The birds come down and eat the sheep’s feed, and spread disease in the excrement they leave behind. Harry tells me other ways that disease can spread, and the options for preventative vaccinations and treatments. I can’t keep up. It seems to be such a challenge, but in reality this is simply part of the multi-layered task of farming, where you need a depth of knowledge about land and animals, and the ability to draw on this to deal with whatever situation presents itself. In any case, it’s clear to me that it’s not all about difficulties: in the context of the larger flock, problems are in the minority. Around the farm, on the high ground and among the rushes, swaledale ewes are following their instinct, taking themselves away, and giving birth in the lee of walls and the edges of fields. After a lick from their mothers, the lambs are up on their long wobbly legs, and looking for the first suck of colostrum that’s so important – it’s a rich first milk that contains essential antibodies that gives them the start they need.

Harry takes us on his morning round to check some of the fields. As we go he tells me about his sheep – they are all swaledales, and the quality of the flock, since he took it on 25 years ago, has greatly improved. As he admires strong new lambs, and the ewes that are still waiting to give birth, he points out the strongest ones and the ones he favours. The lambs have black faces and black on their legs, just the way a swaledale should be.

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We give the ewes some hay and fill up the feed troughs at the top of a field high above the farm house, where an old field barn stands. From here the view stretches for miles and takes in the slim white line of Cautley Spout. There’s only a very light breeze, and we’re standing around talking with a real feeling of spring. The job of feeding would be a lot quicker and tougher than this in a blizzard. Harry checks the sheep, and we bring a mother and her two lambs lower down, into the field allotted for twins. Harry notices that one of the ewe’s teats is engorged and milks it off, hoping that this will make it easier for the lambs to suckle. He’ll be back to see her later.

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The inbye land is walled off from the common, but is still high and exposed. Harry knows the spots the ewes head for when they’re ready to lamb – small pockets in sloping land or and tucked-away corners out of the wind. A ewe will come to the same spot year after year, and her own gimmer (female) lambs will come back to the same place when they are giving birth. It’s what’s known as being hoofed or hefted to a place.

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While we’re looking down towards the River Rawthey and the remains of a quarry whose slate was once carried out on the back of eleven ponies in loads of 14-stone per pony, Harry points to a triangle of trees in the distance. It’s an ancient forest of oak trees that has never been cultivated. For a moment, we switch our thoughts from this exposed moorland to a bluebell floor under trees. ‘It’s like stepping into history, walking in there.’ Then Harry tells us about the black grouse that create a flamboyant display when they leck here each year, and he points out a ravens’ nest high in a pine tree. So far he hasn’t seen the ravens, who have returned every year for ten years, and nor has he seen the grouse.

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We’ve come up on the quad but only 30 years ago the checking of sheep would have been done on foot. Harry tells us of a farmer who once had responsibility for one farm at Uldale and one at Grisedale, the next valley along. Every winter he would walk the four miles from Grisedale to Uldale, feeding the sheep from hay stored in barns as he went, sleep at Uldale, and then walk back the next day to Grisedale – a continuous winter-long journey of walking one way and then the other, day after day, whatever the weather to ensure his sheep were fed. Being able to check the sheep with the help of a quad is a highly valued time saver now, but it has a small draw back – Harry turns the engine off and we’re quiet. It’s as if you can see better when you use your ears too, he tells us. You can hear a lamb crying out for its mother, or a ewe is making the tell-tale sound of a sheep ready to lamb. You have to walk, and listen, to notice these things.

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Every lamb is recorded with a code of letters that shows which ewe it came from, and the tup that sired it, and a set of numbers that match the ear tags.

Back in the shed we find Mary feeding lambs from a bottle. The lambs are up on their feet and gaining strength. At the other end of the barn, tucked onto a ledge about five foot off the ground, there’s a fist-sized nest, knitted together with moss, wool and twine, and inside we find four blackbird chicks. They’ve been reared here despite the shed being used daily, and are simply part of the scene.

Most lambs are born early in the morning, and the Hutchinsons are just at the beginning of what will be a three-four week run of intensity: checking, feeding, nurturing and feeding sheep throughout long days and, at intervals, finding time to eat and sleep themselves. If the weather stays kind and things go well they can hope for a good quota of new swaledale sheep to add to their flock, and to carry the strong bloodlines forward.

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Voices and stories of farmers in the Yorkshire Dales 2016 - 2017 give a glimpse into farming and landscape in this National Park; a Heritage Lottery Funded Project with additional support from The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority's Sustainable Development Fund.

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