Tag Archives: Swaledales

Mum

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One thing you realise during lambing is that not all mothers are created equal. With sheep you get all sorts. For an animal that was supposedly bred to enhance the maternal instinct, it might be time to up the stakes and see if a spot of genetic modification might not speed the job.

Breed seems to have something to do with the maternal instinct. The fell breeds seem to have it in spades. So most breeding sheep are a crossbreed, often with a fell sheep as their mother, and a lowland breed as a father. This means that the offspring should get size and milkiness from the father and toughness and the maternal instinct from the mother. This in theory produces the best of both worlds, and this crossbreed is normally known as ‘The Mule.’

The trouble is that this sort of breeding programme demands that most sheep farmers buy in all their replacements, as few have land suitable for fell sheep. So farmers will have to buy in their Mules. A lot of farmers will buy in some Mules, but will also keep a few useful looking ewe lambs from last year’s crop. So the lowland side of the breeding starts to take over, and perhaps they’re not as strongly maternal as their mothers. But to be fair to them, they can be more docile and produce bigger lambs who grow faster.

Note these are very general traits and individual ewes will vary widely. But across a thousand ewes and several generations the traits can become more noticeable.

One example is what happens when the dog appears. Most ewes will stamp a front foot at it, and perhaps even make a token charge it if it comes too near. This is just to let the dog know that there are rules and limits. A big Swaledale ewe (a fell breed with a fine set of horns) will just stand there and stare the dog out. “Come on dog if you think you’re hard enough.” Most dogs with any sheep experience will remember a previous appointment at this point and slink quietly off. They know they’re dealing with a ewe who will charge, and will happily convert the charge into a hot pursuit!

So at one extreme you have the sheep who are really good mums. The Leicester who had quads, which she produced without assistance, is an exemplar. Once she’d got over the initial shock, she took to them, licked them down, made sure they were fed and didn’t sit on them. We took one of her lambs to put on another ewe who’d lost hers, and the Leicester is still feeding three and feeding them well.

The good mums are a pleasure to work with. When they’ve lambed they’re easy to move. You pick up the lambs and the ewe follows behind you, her nose never more than six inches from her lambs.

You can get those who can be ‘over maternal.’ This is the ewe who is so keen on having lambs she steals them from other sheep even when she hasn’t lambed herself. These can be a real pain in the proverbial. A ewe has just lambed and you’re trying to quietly manoeuvre her into a separate pen so she can lick them down, feed them and bond with them away from the hurly burly. As you do this some idiot keeps charging in and tries to push the other ewe out! She is often the target of harsh language and even uncharitable comments. Still, to be fair, when she finally does get round to lambing she can normally be trusted to be a good mum, and with lambs of her own she doesn’t seem to feel the urge to steal more.

Then you get those who are just thick. You pick up the lambs and walk backwards so that she can always see them. They’re bleating at her. She follows a few reluctant steps and then decides it’s a con and runs back to wherever it was she lambed. So you go back with the lambs, put them in front of her, and she discovers them. All is sweetness and light. You pick them up because she’s lambed in the middle of the yard in the pouring rain and the lambs need to be inside. The minute you pick them up, they become invisible and she charges off somewhere to try and find them. Last year I had one ewe like this who lambed outside. This means lifting the lambs into the quad trailer. The ewe follows them in and I shut the trailer gate behind her and fetch her home rejoicing.

In the case of one bluidy auld witch I finally had to fetch the lambs home and put them under the heat lamb. Then I went back, fetched in all sixty ewes as it was the only way I’d get the new lambed ewe inside. Once they were in the lambing shed I could finally catch mum and stick her in a single pen. Then I let the others back out and brought the erring mum her lambs back. She took to them immediately but frankly it had taken nearly an hour to do a job that should take ten minutes at the most.

Then you have hoggs and shearlings. Hoggs are about a year old when they have their first lamb, shearlings are about two years old. (They’ve been sheared, hence the name.) You’re always careful about putting hoggs in with the tup. You want to make sure they hogg is big enough. Obviously in nature, nobody is that careful. Anything female that comes in season will get tupped. So in a wild situation you’ll lose a lot of young females who’re too small to lamb.

The problem with these young sheep is that they have the instincts but it’s as if they’ve never been activated. So they fire up in a most haphazard manner. This morning I checked the lambing shed at 5:30am, nothing was happening. At 7am when we went in, one hogg had produced twin lambs, licked them down and was feeding them. A couple of hours later she was happy enough to follow them out of the lambing shed across to the pens where we’d let her stay and bond with them for a few days.

Yet I’ve seen hoggs that lambed, took one look at what they’d produced and just abandoned it. If you get the young ewe and lamb into a small pen where mum cannot avoid the lamb, they’ll normally get over their initial panic and their instincts will kick in.

Still lambing hoggs is a somewhat uncertain process. To them everything is new and at times quite interesting. So don’t be surprised to find the young mum climbing half way up her pen gate, just to get a better view of what’s going on.

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Somewhere out there are people who know what they’re doing? Available in paperback or ebook format

 

As the reviewer commented, “This book charts a year in the life of a Cumbrian sheep farmer. It’s sprinkled with anecdotes and memories of other years. Some parts (especially when featuring Sal, the Border Collie) were so funny as to cause me to have to read them out loud to my husband. It’s very interesting to read these things from the pen of the man who is actually out there doing it – usually in the rain! A very good read.”

 

 

Going home

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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.

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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.”

Happy New Year

Happy new year

New Year’s Eve was pretty much like what you’d expect. I got two phone calls, both to discuss sheep, and we agreed that we’d get some wintering hoggs wormed New Year’s Day morning.

The problem is that the weather so far this winter has been so wet; it’s been perfect for the snails that carry the intermediate stage of the Parasite. At the moment it’s so wet that when we go checking sheep in the morning, I can tell where Sal is by the splashing she makes as she runs about checking stuff.

 

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Anyway this morning I decided to be clever. When I went out at the usual time to feed some dairy heifers I decided I’d get the wintering hoggs handy for the gate. This is because they’ve got two fields, and they’re separated by a shallow ditch which is currently a shallow lake. I decided that if I got them from the back field to the front one, then if they stayed there, when we came to collect them an hour later they’d be so much easier to bring in.

So Sal and I went to move them. They stood looking at the water obstacle as if it was a raging torrent, and then looked at Sal, and came to the reasonable decision that, actually, the water was the least of their problems. So they scampered through it, over the crest of the hill and out of sight down to the gate. Sal and I quietly left them there. We left the fields by a different gate so they couldn’t see us leave. My hope was that they’d hang about round by their gate, and would be wary about checking over the crest of the hill lest Sal was still there.

Then we went to get them, a bunch of little Swaledales, and, of course, they’d gone back to the far field, blithely crossing the water obstacle as if it were a matter of no concern.

Still we got them in, we got them wormed, and we took them back out again. Indeed it didn’t actually start raining until we were riding home on the quad, and it wasn’t raining properly until after we’d got the quad away. So all in all, quite a civilised way to spend a New Year’s Day morning.

 

Reminds me of a chap I knew who farmed further over, he got a phone call from a mate, just before Christmas.

“George, fancy some rough shooting?”

“Aye it’d be alright.”

“Boxing Day then, we’ll make a day of it, get picked up about 8am, dropped off about 9, spend a day working through the area. Then about 4pm we’ll be just nicely placed for the pub so we’ll go in, have a few beers, get a meal when they start serving, and we’ll get picked up and fetched home about 10pm. What do you think?”

“Sounds great, but I’ll be working.”

“Don’t worry, it’s a bank holiday, nobody works.”

 

Anyway Happy New Year to you all.

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And if you’re not working, it stands to reason you need a good book

As a reviewer commented, “I find there’s nothing better on a cold wet day, than to sit indoors, near a warm fire/radiator, with a hot coffee, some biscuits/cake and one of Jim Webster’s books. So that’s what I’ve done today, with this particular book.
I find the plots intriguing, the characters endearing (even the ‘bad/evil’ ones) and the storytelling style relaxing.
The various threads in the stories are always neatly tied up and the endings invariably satisfactory.”