For most of my working life, my days have been ruled by the clock and calendar. It was natural to always know what time of day, or day of the week, it was. But time moves differently on the farm, is controlled by seasons, daylight hours, and breeding and growing events, rather than a clock or what day of the week it is – and we suddenly find ourselves in mid-May without quite knowing how it happened.
Perhaps it’s the all-consuming bubble of lambing. After the short days and daily drill of the winter feeding routine, there were the surprisingly warm days of early spring, each day longer than the one before, when we could spread compost in the garden field… get the final round of weigh-ins and treatments for the ewes done before lambing… get the vegetable seeds going on the sun drenched front porch, which serves as our untidy, jacket-draped greenhouse…then hurry to get the lambing field set up, the supplies in, the bonding pens constructed-
-and then lambing arrived, and everything stopped but that. The world outside the farm got on with regular life, while we disengaged with everything but our ewes and lambs, and became singularly focused on the home fields, and the life cycle of the farm. The endless watching, the lack of sleep, the hours of worry followed by relief when the lambs arrive in the right position and very much alive – and hungry – seems to put us into a bubble where time is measured by short sleeps and the minutes between the first appearance of a water-bag and the arrival of a lamb. By how long it takes a lamb to find the teat before it loses the will to live, and must be helped to do so. Time also spent upside down, under the belly of a ewe, checking teats and helping the clueless lambs onto them. And then there’s that one ewe who waits two weeks after everyone else, before finally delivering her own lamb. We start to get to other chores, sowing and harrowing, bookkeeping and planning, always keeping one eye on the lambing field, waiting, waiting. There is very little that can pull our attention off the farm at the best of times – we seem to be as married to this land and its needs as we are to each other – and at lambing time, that commitment takes full control of our lives and our time.
And then it’s done. The last ewe is in the nursery with her lamb scampering by her side, the rest are waiting for her in the ‘post-natal’ field, lambs leaping about, and the pens are being broken down for another year. The pen area will be reset as the sheep run, ready for the foot checks and vaccinations of early summer. The new rhythm of monitoring weights and body conditions in the leadup to the next breeding season. And already, we’ve started assessing which animals from the male flock have a hope of a breeding career on other farms, and which ones will go directly to the freezer. The tomato seedlings are ready to move from the porch to the polytunnel, the heavy jackets are making way for the light… and it’s the middle of May already. Time flies when you’re having fun!
And this year, it really was more fun than usual: after seven years, we seem to have found our rhythm – and the proper sharing of responsibilities for a successful lambing. Having clear agreements about roles helped keep priorities straight and tensions down – who could’ve guessed? Maybe we’re finally learning how to do this. We chose the right ewes for breeding, and Donald got the 3rd trimester feeding just right – as proven by the weights and health of ewes and lambs at birth. Keeping the breeding ewes in the shelter of the old woodland until the final week before lambing seemed to have helped, too, a tip I picked up from another farmer, a trick which also saved the lambing fields’ grazing until the post lambing period. (The woodlands are resting now, greening and blooming.) The lambs cooperated by all coming out in the right direction – no tails first this year, thank goodness – with only a couple needing a little help getting both legs out in front. Only one ewe decided to surprise us: she shot out an unexpected second lamb, just as I was underneath her, trying to get a stubborn, blocked teat open – you haven’t lived until you’ve had a sodden wriggly lamb (and all her birth fluids) land on your head at 2am! Maybe she thought we’d been having it all too easy? But most of the girls gave us plenty of signs that a second lamb was on the way, and we could wait patiently and at a safe distance while she delivered it.
In fact, as I sit here, looking back at lambing time, our only complaint is not really a complaint at all: 20 out of the 24 breeding ewes had twins, and all lambs made it to the post-natal field, and are zooming about as I write this. What in the world are we going to do with 44 Hebridean lambs?!? My Dutch friends would call that a ‘lux probleem’: too much of a good thing. Well, that’s a question for August…and it’s only May after all. 😉