Posted 21st Feb 2014
Cute fluffy lambs gambolling in the fields are a common sight in the countryside at this time of year. We meet a Norfolk sheep farmer to discover just what it takes to bring these harbingers of spring safely into the world
As the sun rises low in the sky over the Wissey Valley in the Norfolk Brecks, a farmer walks slowly through the dew-covered pasture that runs along the bank of the River Wissey, stopping from time to time to gaze at his flock of ewes. Some are heavy and rotund with pregnancy and others are lovingly nudging and nursing their newly born lambs, who have a remarkable amount of spring in their step for creatures that are only a few hours old. The farmer, Rob Simonds, isn't just gazing wistfully at his flock, he is watching, assessing and inspecting his animals to see if they need any help during this spring's lambing season. An experienced pig farmer who has spent time working on a New Zealand sheep station, Rob is still relatively new to shepherding his own flock and he takes the care of his new charges very seriously. But why would a successful pig farmer want to add caring for a flock of sheep to his already busy workload?
‘We have a 3/4 acre garden at home and about four years ago our ride-on mower died and we couldn't afford to replace it. So instead we bought three ewes with their lambs as a better way of keeping the grass down than mowing,' Rob laughs. ‘More grazing became available to us and we decided to start increasing the flock. We already have a successful pig business, Scotts Field Pork, supplying local butchers and we knew there was a demand for locally produced, good quality lamb, so the idea of Wissey Valley Lamb was born,' he explains. By diversifying his stock to include sheep, Rob hopes this will balance out the fluctuations in pork prices. The flock has now built to around 50 sheep, a mix of Romneys and rare breed Jacobs. These native breeds are preferable as they tend to be hardy, well-suited to the British climate and great outdoor lambers. Rob hopes to increase the flock to around 200 in the next year or so depending on when adjoining pasture becomes available.
The outdoor lambing season runs from April to May, as opposed to indoor lambing which runs from January to March. Rob prefers to lamb outside as it's more natural and less stressful for the ewes and he doesn't have the facilities to lamb his flock indoors. ‘Indoor lambing is very labour intensive,' he explains, ‘whereas outdoors, although I do need to keep a watchful eye on them, the ewes mostly get on with it themselves and you only need to intervene if they are in trouble.'
If any ewes do need an extra hand with the birth Rob has some spare pig arks set up in a corner of the field surrounded by hurdles and hay bales where the ewes can be taken when they are experiencing difficulties and need intervention.
However, despite all Rob's efforts to ensure a safe, natural entry into the world, some lambs still need to be hand reared. Known as pet lambs, these may have been rejected by their mothers, or their mother may be too ill or weak to feed them after a difficult birth. Ewes only have two teats, so if they have triplets one is taken away to be hand reared so that the ewe is able to just feed the remaining two as well as she can naturally. ‘Luckily we don't get many triplets or rejects with the Romneys,' Rob says with an air of relief in his voice.
However, there are always some lambs that need to be hand reared each season. Back at home, Rob's wife Sarah and their two children, daughter Georgie and son Paddy, have a full-on job bottle feeding these adorable, wriggling, bleating bundles of cuteness.
The newborn lambs need to be fed a powdered colostrum solution at regular intervals for the first 24 hours after birth. After this they need to be fed four times a day with powdered milk formula with the first feed at 5am. Gradually, as they get older and stronger, this reduces to three times a day.
The children obviously help with the early and late feeds, but when they are at school Sarah has been known to drive a box full of bleating lambs to work with her in the back of the car. She runs The Artichoke Collection - a country clothes shop in nearby Hackford - where she will keep the lambs in the back room and feed them during the day. ‘Their bleating causes much amusement amongst the customers, although the smell can be a bit of a problem!' Rob laughs.
The bottle feeding tends to stop at six weeks when the pet lambs start weaning on lamb creep feed, which is high in energy and protein. Then they eventually progress onto grass out in the pasture. ‘We're lucky that conditions along the banks of the River Wissey provide moist conditions where the pasture is abundant. This part of Norfolk has mostly sandy soil which can dry out terribly in summer creating problems with enough grazing, but the moist conditions by the river are ideal,' he explains.
Rob's day starts at 5am when he makes his first rounds. At this time of year it is still dark and dawn is very slowly breaking. The air has yet to be warmed by the sun and you can see your breath rising in plumes before you as you tramp across the fields. On this first inspection of the day Rob deals with any issues which may have occurred overnight, including picking up any orphan lambs and getting them home to be warmed up and bottle fed as soon as possible. He also checks on any other lambs that have been born overnight and makes sure their mothers are well and feeding them without any problems.
Every lamb needs to drink as soon as possible after being born, so Rob checks them closely for signs of feeding. If they stretch or frolic about they are OK, but if they are lethargic it may mean they've not yet had a drink. A full, round, stretched belly is a sign that a lamb has had its first drink of colostrum from mum, but those that appear not to have had any milk are taken home to be bottle fed. Sometimes a ewe will have mastitis - swelling of the teat tissue - which means they have trouble producing milk from one or both teats, so Rob needs to check them for this too and take any of their lambs away to be put on the bottle if needs be.
While checking the lambs Rob also fits rubber rings to the tails of the newborns to dock them. This is a bloodless and relatively painless procedure which stops the flow of blood to the tail causing it to die and drop off and it needs to be done within two days of birth. Removing the tail prevents faecal matter from accumulating on the tail and hindquarters, making shearing easier and greatly reducing the chance of harbouring wool maggots which can attack the skin.
Occasionally ewes get separated from their lambs and there can be mis-mothering. In order to make sure the ewes stay with their lambs Rob sprays them with coordinating numbers to help him pair them back up if they get separated.
After this morning check, it's off to the day job for Rob, tending his herd of rare breed large black pigs. He goes back to the sheep field every two hours throughout the day to check on the progress of the ewes and lambs. He'll keep an eye out for any potential problems, but tries not to intervene too much unless absolutely necessary as it can do more harm than good. Ewes about to lamb tend to separate themselves from the rest of the flock and find a quiet, secluded, sheltered part of the field to give birth in. ‘Natural lambing gives a better birth experience than indoor lambing,' Rob explains. ‘It is cleaner than lambing indoors on straw in a pen. The lambing field will not have had sheep grazing on it over winter so therefore will not be harbouring any disease, there is plenty of cover and lots of grass for the ewes to eat.'
Ewes are very thirsty after giving birth and licking their lambs clean, so they need plenty of water. ‘If there is lots of long wet grass there should be enough moisture to rehydrate them, but if the pasture is poor because of bad weather they may need extra buckets of water placed near them so they don't stray from their lambs in order to find water,' Rob says.
‘We tend to stop hard feeding the pregnant ewes a week before they are due to lamb and just supply them with an energy lick block if they need any extra sustenance,' he adds. ‘This is because if we feed the ewes as usual they'll all rush to the feeder and the lambs will become separated from their mums and chaos ensues,' he says with a dry smile.
For more details on where to buy Wissey Valley Lamb visit www.scottsfieldpork.co.uk
Read the rest of this feature on p.110 of the March/April 2014 issue...
By Anna-Lisa De'Ath