I’m sure we’ve all heard the one about the small child, gazing in wonder at a new-born lamb, who turns to his father and asks “where do lambs come from, Daddy?” “Asda,” says his Dad.
It won’t be long now before St Mabyn echoes to the sounds of spring lambs frolicking in the fields. It’s serious sheep country around here, making a significant contribution to the 20 million-strong UK flock.
There are eight ewes in my top meadow right now, and a ram, and with a gestation period of about five months I reckon it’ll be May before there’s any lambing at my place. The sheep belong to a friend and graze about an acre of pasture which I would otherwise have to cut for hay.
Before we get to the lambing season, though, the ram has to play his part – and it’s much more scientific than you might think, although thankfully the technology is fairly straightforward. The ram is fitted with a “raddle harness” – a bit like an inverted back-pack, tied with straps – which leaves a dye-mark on the back of the ewe, making it obvious if she has “had a cuddle” or not.
As the weeks go by, if the ewe is still clearly not pregnant, you can change the colour of the dye so as to tell which sheep are “with-lamb” and which are probably not. This is why you sometimes see sheep with different dye marks on their backs. A ewe with no dye-mark at all is probably not going to give you a lamb five months later.This process is known as “tupping” and during this period the rams can be quite aggressive. Any similarities with what goes on at some of the rougher pubs in Bodmin on a Friday night are purely coincidental.
Round about April, I might expect to see some of the sheep behaving oddly: lying down when the rest of the flock is standing up, pawing at the ground and bleating for no obvious reason. This means that things are about to get busy. Lambing can be a messy business, and opinions differ as to whether the sheep know best and should be left to just get on with it, or whether to call the vet.
This is an economic judgement, usually determined by scale.
In my experience, the lambs have always been born before I get up in the morning, and just appear in the field, as if by magic. This is when the experienced shepherd (not me) pays extra close attention, making sure that the mother does not reject the lamb – in which case fostering by another ewe, or even bottle-feeding, might be necessary.
There are stories that foxes will predate on new-born lambs, too, although I’ve never seen any evidence of it. The sheep are penned behind an electric fence which also helps keep foxes out. In any case, about a fifth of all UK sheep die from cold, and or malnutrition (but not in St Mabyn, of course,) so any theoretical losses to Mr Fox need to be seen in that context.
During May, the young lambs really do frolic. They rush about, leap into the air, kick their legs, and run to their Mums. Great fun to watch. But best not to think about it at lunchtime on Sundays.