Well the wintering Swaledales have gone home. I’ve borrowed an appropriate photo of sheep belonging to somebody else. It’s suitably scenic. The hoggs that were with us had to leave because in the next week the field they’ve been in over winter will hopefully be ploughed for potatoes. It’s very much a tale of two Cumbrias at the moment.
The pickup and trailer that came to collect them had snow on it. The snow was melting and leaving pools of water under the vehicles. Here our snow is limited to an ‘icing sugar effect’ which disappeared by coffee time. There are times when people contact me and ask how we’re doing because they’ve heard that villages in Cumbria are cut off. The last time that happened the village that was cut off was still in Cumbria but was ninety miles away from us and well over a thousand feet up. Here our spot height is less than a hundred feet and we’ve got the sea on three sides.
Still one advantage of this diversity in the county is that it allows young female hill sheep can migrate downhill onto lowland farms. This has advantages for everybody. The sheep eat up the last of the previous year’s grass, which means your next year’s silage is better than it would be, because it’s all young grass when you mow it.
From the point of view of the sheep farmer, if his hoggs stayed at home, there’s not a lot of anything to feed them. So they’d have to get a lot of bought in feed which is expensive. So with wintering them away they come back bigger and fitter than they would have done if you’d tried to keep them at home, and ideally what you pay for wintering is less that what you’d pay to feed them at home.
As it is, the wintered sheep don’t have to get used to a new diet, they can continue just doing what they do best, which is eating grass. So when they get home and go back out onto your grass they don’t have a period of readjustment. They can just get on with eating and growing.
Back here, ewes are still lambing. They don’t appear to be in any rush, and for some reason a large proportion seem to decide that late afternoon is the perfect time. The strange thing is that whilst they have a lot of yard to wander about on and silage feeders to graze from, they also have the lambing shed left open so they can go in there where it’s warm. Some of them do. I suspect that once they’ve had a feed of silage they like to go somewhere snug to digest it. But do the ewes who’re lambing in the afternoon go into the lambing shed where it’s snug and out of the wind? Of course not, that would be too easy. So they’ll lamb outside where we’ve got to move fast before the lamb gets chilled.
At the moment we’ve got a mixture of singles, twins and triplets lambing. A ewe can only really feed two lambs, because they only have two teats. So ideally a carrying a single lamb and a ewe carrying triplets lamb at the same time on the same day and you can pinch one of the triplets off its mum when she’s not looking and give it to the mum with the single.
If they’re both lambing at the same time and you’ve got amniotic fluid all over everything, you can often get away with it. But if the lamb being added onto the single is dry, having been born yesterday, it’s a lot more hit and miss. If you’re fast enough and get there with the lamb in time to soak it in amniotic fluid from its new mum, and even drape a bit of afterbirth artistically over it so she gets to lick it clean again, then you’re in with a chance. This is called ‘wet fostering’ and you can see why. When it works it’s great because it’s comparatively quick and easy.
But if the ewe remains suspicious then you have to take more time over them. First stage can be just putting a halter on the ewe, with one end tied to the gate of her pen. This way she can shift about, her movement isn’t restricted much, but she cannot chase the new lamb away or attack it. After a few days the new lamb will smell of her and she’ll accept it anyway.
Or alternatively if the halter isn’t working you have to put the ewe in the ‘stocks’. Here she can stand up and sit down without problems. But she cannot see her lambs so she doesn’t know which lamb is suckling her, so she cannot attack the ‘wrong one’. This means that both lambs can feed safely and after a couple of days (or longer with particularly obdurate ewes) the lamb smells of new mum and she’s happy to accept it and they can go out into the wide world and play happy families together.
Anyway back to the wintering hoggs. It’s always good when fell sheep like these go home. The problem with them is that they have no real concept of hedges and fences. Herdwicks are the worst, they just escape. We were lucky these little Swaledales didn’t actually get out on us. I did have to nip in three or four times to fix gaps in the wire they’d found, but that was the limit to it. We wintered Herdwicks one year. Before Christmas they were fine. We had no problems. After New Year I don’t think any of them bothered staying in the correct field for a whole afternoon! As I said, we only wintered Herdwicks once.
There again, you could talk to the expert. Available in paperback or ebook
As a reviewer said, “This is the third collection of farmer Jim Webster’s anecdotes about his sheep, cattle and dogs. This one had added information on the Lake District’s World Heritage status. This largely depends upon the work of around 200 small family farms. Small may not always be beautiful but it can be jolly important. If you want to know the different skills needed by a sheep dog and a cow dog, or to hear tales of some of the old time travelling sales persons – read on! This is real life, Jim, but not as I know it.”