From Monday 7th – Friday 11th April, I did work experience on Carter Farm in Ruckinge, Kent. They have about 600 sheep, all of which were lambing in the first three weeks of April, though they always have a few earlies and lates. I had a fantastic time on the farm and really enjoyed it all. Unlike other work experience placements I have done, this was hands on experience and I knew that I was contributing to the team of farm workers. Rather than blogging each day as I have done so previously, I will talk about each aspect of the work I did across the week, as many days were very similar.
The sheep were lambed in a large barn, the general plan of which can be seen above. Most sheep lambed in the central pens (coloured orange) which each contained about 30 ewes. Therefore one of the most important jobs was taking the ewes with their lambs out of these pens and into a cubicle (coloured purple). To do this, we slowly approached the lambed ewe, who would often be licking her new born lambs. We then took the lambs by their hind legs and begun to drag them away. The mother would normally sniff the lambs and immediately follow. In this way, most sheep could be led anywhere. Often we would leave them in the alleys between pens if the mother was agitated before moving them the entire way to a cubicle.
However, sometimes problems would arise. On Tuesday morning, we spotted a single lamb in the centre pen. Edging into the pen, we began to drag the lamb out but two sheep followed. Roy, who has been a shepherd for 60 years, showed me how we could easily tell which ewe the lamb belonged to because of the placenta hanging from her vulva. Even after the afterbirth, it is easy to tell a lambed ewe because of the enlarged vulva and wetness that remains for a prolonged period. Although we knew which ewe was the mother, an old, large ewe persistently tried to lick the lamb, following whenever we tried to take the lamb. Eventually we managed to encourage the real mother out and quickly shut the gate before the other ewe could follow. This older ewe continued to be troublesome until later that day when she gave birth to twins and was at last satisfied!
Tuesday was an eventful day in the large pens. The ewes were lambing fast and after lunch we returned to the barn to find that several sheep had lambed in the same pens. Sorting out the sheep wasn’t generally a problem because earlier in the year, the ewes had been scanned and marked according to whether they were to have singles, twins or triplets. This also identifies which ewes are not pregnant. They are then sent to market. We pulled several lambs out, with several mums following and soon the problem had condensed into one issue – a sheep, marked to have a single, had ‘stolen’ a lamb from a sheep which had given birth to twins. The single mother would not accept her own lamb and neither would the mother of twins, leaving both mothers with one lamb each and a lamb with no mother. Roy made the choice to try and adopt it on to another mother.
Adoption and Sock Lambs
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for lambs to be rejected by their mothers so during the week I learnt about the two main attempts which are normally made to encourage mothers to take a lamb. If a single lamb has been born to a mother with sufficient milk for two lambs, the rejected lamb can be rubbed with the mucus from the birth and as a result the mother may accept them as twins. However, for this to be successful the timing must be perfect with the reject being taken to the mother almost immediately after birth. An alternative method for adoption is skinning a dead lamb. It is sad but must be accepted that roughly 10% of all lambs die (only 2% of mothers die during lambing), and I realised that it is best to put these dead to good use if possible. Therefore, it was with mixed emotions that I watched as Roy spotted a dead lamb of a single mother. If this mother would not take another lamb, she would be useless. Roy took his pen knife and sliced through the lamb’s fleece, chopping off its legs and head. Whilst keeping the head hole as small as possible, Roy pulled the body of the lamb out of its skin. He left the ugly, pink form in the shape of a lamb, lying on the floor and I had to remind that it had already been dead but was now opening up a life for another lamb. Taking the lamb in need of a mother (this one was from a set of triplets whose mother did not have enough milk to look after all three of them adequately), Roy pulled the skin over its head and slipped its arms and legs through the appropriate holes. It was just like a little jacket and was a perfect fit. Putting the lamb with its new mother, we knew that only time would tell whether it had worked, as some mothers are much more gullible than others. I was pleased that had seen a lamb being skinned because it brought to life the reality of lambing. It is a process undergone, not simply for the joy of seeing new life but for financial gain, to keep the farming business alive. The joy of new life is a wonderful bonus. I don’t know if I would be able to a lamb myself but this particular adoption was a success and it was great to see a life given a chance of living.
But adoption didn’t always work and wasn’t always an option, sometimes the lambs were too small and weak and need some tender loving care. On one occasion, a mother with twins tried to reject one of her lambs to the extreme. She nipped it, throwing it about and pushing into it. She pushed it with so much force that she even managed to break the door. Roy decided to try and get her under control rather than take the lamb away, so he made a halter out of string and tied her firmly to the wall, showing the lamb where to suckle. But she continued to kick at him. After several hours, we realised that it was a lost cause and Roy explained that he was also worried that it may have been injured with the possibility of broken ribs. Consequently it was placed into my arms and I carried it inside where it would join the other small, weak, rejected and injured lambs who became sock lambs.
There was a small outbuilding on the farm where we made coffee and ate lunch, and in here was a wooden pen with a lamp hanging above it under which the sock lambs huddled. Every morning when I arrived and every evening before I left and at random intervals throughout the day when a small lamb was given to me, I would bottle feed the lambs. I would make up some milk using instant lamlac, a ewe milk replacer, then hold the lambs on my lap one at a time to feed. The older ones knew what to do and leapt up, eager to be fed when they heard the milk being prepared, whilst the younger ones, who were often still very weak, were less confident. I often had to force the teat into their mouths before they settled down and sucked contently. I grew very attached to many of them, especially number 11, who had a cyst near the base of his spine meaning that his back legs had become deformed. We weren’t sure whether he would make it, but with two antibiotic injections every day and lots of milk, we saw rapid improvement and by the end of my week, he was hobbling at speed around the room and always first on his feet during feeding time. However, I could not become too attached. Almost every morning when I walked in, I was greeted by the sad sight of several dead sock lambs who had not made it through the night. On Wednesday, I was trying hard to feed an extremely small lamb. It was barely sucking so I had to gently squeeze the teat to force milk into its mouth. When I put it down it wobbled on its weak legs and dribbled out lots of the milk I’d just given it. I laid it down under the lamp but it was dead within the hour. Another sad story was that of a lamb which landed in the water bucket. It had been completely submerged but was just breathing when someone spotted it and fished it out. It was put into my arms and I ran it inside. I put it under the lamp and sat with it, rubbing its coat and patting its back. Its breathing became stronger, and eventually I left, knowing that I could do no more for it. Unfortunately it did not make it.
Docking, Castrating and Marking
Once the lambs were in the lambing cubicles, they were left for some time to bond with their mother. However, as soon as they were ‘dry’ (normally within 24 hours), we docked, castrated and marked the lambs. We did this using an elastrator and small elastic bands. After placing the elastic band on the elastrator, it could be squeezed, stretching the ring. Roy showed me how to hold the lamb between my knees and slip the stretched ring over the tail to its base, where the skin became visible, then pull the ring off the elastrator, leaving it on the tail. The tail would then fall off after 7 to 10 days. At the same time, the male lambs could be castrated by placing a ring at the neck of the scrotum, causing the scrotum to shrivel and fall off within two to three weeks. It was very important to ensure that both testicles could be felt underneath the ring and a couple of times I could not find the testicles and Roy explained that they may not have dropped yet. It took several goes to get the knack of it, but by Wednesday we had a smooth production line going. Roy would check which lambs had already been ringed and which needed doing and then we would work our way down the cubicles. Roy fished out a lamb using a shepherds hook and handed it to me to ring whilst he marked up the mother. I would then dock and castrate (if it was male) the lamb and spray iodine onto the umbilical cord before handing it back to Roy to number. The single lambs and ewes were left unmarked whilst the twins were given the same number as each other and their mother and triplets were given the same letter of the alphabet. This was done in red spray whilst all the ewes also had a blue ‘C’ on them, standing for ‘Collick’, the name of the farmer. Roy was so kind to trust me with the ringing and I really enjoyed doing it as I gradually improved, finding it easier as the week progressed.
The rung lambs and their mother could then be moved from the lambing cubicles into the small pens (coloured turquoise). 14 ewes with their lambs would be kept in these at one time, giving the sheep a chance to socialise and become used to being in a group. It helped to ensure that the ewes and lambs would recognise and be able to find each other in a large field full of sheep. Therefore, several times a day, I would find myself scooping up lambs and chasing sheep through the barn. Roy would identify the 14 to be moved then open up the door, chasing out the sheep and lambs. I would stand behind the ewe, whistling and clapping, encouraging her to walk down the aisle and into the open pen. Sometimes the lamb(s) would follow by themselves but normally I would have to grab their legs and carry them into the pen as they fidgeted and bleated, confused as to all the upheaval. Occasionally the ewe would be uncooperative and we would chase her up and down the aisles, and sometimes she would calmly follow if allowed to sniff her lambs. Every sheep was different and it was an exercise of versatility. I was initially shocked at the roughness with which the lambs were handled. They were normally carried using one foot, and often thrown onto the straw floor. But Roy had 60 years experience and I trusted him when he told me that the lambs were tougher than they looked, and not easily hurt. He told me that one of the few scenarios in which the lambs got injured by being handled like this was if there legs got caught up with your legs when carrying them. By the end of the week I was used to the procedure and found myself throwing the lambs about like I never thought I would’ve!
With lambs continually being born, the process of moving sheep from pen to pen and ringing and marking them as we went was also a continuous job, which we spent most of every day doing. When the lambs and sheep had been moved into the small pens, they were soon moved on into even larger pens in a different barn, filled with dozens of lambed ewes. Then within several days they would be taken to one of the many fields belonging to the farm. On Monday, I went with Dick and Dave – two men who volunteered on the farm during lambing – as they took some sheep to one of the fields. We loaded them into the trailer, first catching all the lambs and putting them in a portioned off section so they would not get trampled, then chasing all of the sheep in after them. We drove them to a nearby field where they were unloaded. We checked that all the lambs had found their mothers and then continued on a round of all the fields where there were lambs, checking that all was well. In one field, a ewe had managed to get her head stuck in a tree but luckily that was all and we found no dead lambs.
On Thursday, I went out to the field again, but this time it was to bring sheep in. The ewes are served (mated by rams) at intervals, with the hope that they do not all lamb in the same short space of time. However, one lamb had already been born in the field of late lambers and so the decision was made to bring them to a field opposite the farm, so they could be conveniently moved inside when the majority were ready to lamb. I went with Dick and Pip – the farm manager – in the tractor to the field, taking Ash the sheep dog with us. Ash helped to quickly round up the sheep so we could chase them into a makeshift pen. After finding and ringing the lamb which had already been born, we let it and its mother back into the field then loaded the sheep into the trailers.
Feeding and Littering
By the afternoon, the sheep were normally organised adequately to ensure that there were sufficient free lambing cubicles for any new-born lambs. Therefore, every afternoon we fed all the sheep. The sheep were fed on nuggets and fodder beet. Fodder beet is a cross between sugar beet and mangelwurzel, and is a nutritious, fibrous feed which the sheep love. First of all we moved the sheep in the large, centre pens who were ready to lamb, down into a single pen. They were very squashed, but it was only for a short period of time. Pip would then drive in with the tractor carrying a large scoop full of fodder beet. Through a combination of tipping and throwing, we would distribute the beet into all of the middle pens before letting the sheep back through. Then we would take a sack of nuggets into each pen and empty them, spreading the nuggets through all the sheep. The sheep always knew when it was feeding time and the drone of baas which usually filled the air would immediately escalate to an almost deafening chorus! The sheep in these pens always had water available with a piping system set up to feed water into large buckets.
After this, it was normally my job to load the wheelbarrow full of nuggets and make my way down the lambing cubicles, throwing a small scoop to every ewe. I would then take the hose along the aisle, ensuring that every cubicle had buckets, half filled with clean water – the sheep had a tendency to knock over their water buckets. Finally, we would take a wheelbarrow of fodder beet down, cutting the beets into smaller pieces with a spade so that every ewe received roughly a third of a large beet, although the sizes were very variable.
The last job of the afternoon was always littering. It was important that hygiene was maintained despite the constant activity and huge numbers of sheep. There needed to be as many clean cubicles as possible available for the night when Pip needed to be able to pull ewes with their new born lambs into cubicles when necessary. Littering consisted of raking the muck and straw from the bottom of every empty cubicle and then covering the bottom with a thick layer of straw. It was surprisingly hard work mucking out and never failed to exhaust me, leaving my hands itching with blisters from the rake.
The whole week was extremely hard work and I went home exhausted yet satisfied every evening. However, the most fulfilling and incredible experience I had was delivery. Roy was always on the lookout for sheep giving birth, and told me about the tell-tale signs of a ewe preparing to lamb. It was possible to listen for the mum heaving and a drip of mucus would appear hanging from her vulva. The mother would eat the waters at this point because it was valuable protein which could not be wasted. The ultimate indicator was when the hooves became visible. Most sheep successfully lambed by themselves. But several times we intervened. The first time Roy intervened it was to show me how it was done. Then when I working alongside Pip, he spotted a ewe lambing and let me deliver it! I could see the hooves of one foot so put my hand into her uterus and felt for the other leg. Taking these hooves between my index and middle finger, I tugged the second leg out into the open. I then firmly pulled both legs until the nostrils were just visible. Pulling her vulva back, Pip helped me to continue tugging the legs until finally the head followed and in one swift movement I delivered the entire lamb. After clearing the mouth and nose of mucus, the next job was to ensure it could breathe. There were several ways of doing this including sticking a piece of straw up the nose or pinching the end of lamb’s ear as there are sensitive nerves here which can shock the lamb into breathing. Finally, we placed the lamb by its mother and she began to lick it. It was a fantastic sight and I was filled with awe at the miracle of life.
However, several other deliveries were not so straight forward. Roy and I were walking past the pens when suddenly we noticed a sheep with a lamb’s head hanging from its vulva but no legs were in sight. She was running around, heaving and panicking, so Roy immediately lay her on the ground and started pushing the head back in against her contractions. I watched as he pushed with all his might, making the most of the slight delays between every contraction as the were extremely strong. Eventually the lamb’s head slipped back in and Roy felt around for the legs. He found one so pulled it out but couldn’t reach the other so took a chance and pulled with the one leg. Just when it looked like he would have to start again and reposition the lamb to find the other leg, he successfully managed a one-legged delivery! It was a huge relief because Roy explained that if we had not spotted the lamb’s head hanging out, it would have died and then the mother would have died from blood poisoning. He also told me that if the lamb was dead, it could be delivered quickly and easily to save the mother’s life by slitting along the forearms and pulling out the bones. This is possible because the shoulder blades are not attacked to anything so both entire arms can be removed, leaving a streamlined form to be delivered.
Some sheep also had some lucky escapes. One was lambing with one foot back. Roy was just about to intervene when it managed to sort itself out. Another ewe had previously had prolapse where her uterus had been ejected during the pregnancy. Roy had pushed the uterus back and successfully used a couple of stitches to secure it in place. He also explained that this didn’t also work and a prolapse harness (or improvised string harness) could be used to hold it in place. It was important to keep an eye on this ewe because as she came close to lambing, the stitches had to be removed otherwise the lamb could no come out. Roy spotted her as she began to lamb so quickly cut out the stitches. There was a 50% chance that the uterus would come out again. If it did, this could have serious consequences because the uterus would almost certainly become infected. Although penicillin would be given if this did happen, survival could not be guaranteed. However, the birth was successful without prolapse and we were all over the moon!
I really enjoyed my week lambing on Carter Farm, I have learnt so much and been worked extremely hard but nevertheless loved every minute of it. Thank you so much to Pip Collick as well as Roy, Dick and Dave and everyone else on the farm who did so much to make this a week worth remembering. I’m hoping to return next year and see the stresses, strains and wonders of the lambing process unfold once again.