What is lambing? Important, that’s what. Lambing is arguably the most important time of year for any sheep farmer.
It’s when the sheep give birth and the lambs arrive. It is anything but silent. It causes bad tempers, sleepless nights, the occasional heartache and lots of stress – and that’s just for the sheep. Just kidding. We do our very best to help them keep their tempers.
My lambing begins around the 1st of April. Some people start earlier, and some start later. When you plan to start lambing depends a lot on your set up. If you have a big shed and bring the sheep inside, you might start earlier because the weather is slightly less of a concern. If you know that you are lambing outside, or that your grass starts growing later, you might choose to lamb the sheep later as well.
The number of sheep you have to manage plays a big part in those decisions too.
In Tiree grass starts growing very late and we are often still feeding animals well into May. I don’t bring sheep inside unless it is an emergency, so I try not to have lambs arriving before the beginning of April. That way I can at least hope the weather will be slightly kinder.
That said, Hebrideans particularly are tough as old boots. They generally drop their lambs and carry on with life. The wee ones are quick to get up and find a drink.
I have learnt the hard way that it is best to be as hands off as possible at lambing time. The more you interfere, the higher the chance that a ewe will decide she does not like her lamb. That is the perfect way to end up bottle feeding a lamb for the next 3 months. I know… looking after that cute little lamb sounds lovely. If you would like one, I can arrange it. There is a high chance you will only do it once!
So, what are the key parts of the countdown to lambing time?
Countdown to lambing time
You might be surprised to hear that we scan pregnant sheep. Whilst it is not essential, it is very useful for a variety of reasons. Ewes carrying different numbers of lambs might need different volumes of feeding.
Knowing if a sheep is expecting triplets is handy. Some sheep can raise 3 lambs, but some struggle. If you don’t want to end up with a pet lamb (see above) knowing that another sheep is about to have just one lamb gives you a chance to see if you can fool her into thinking she had two… It’s called twinning on and it is both an art and a science which I have yet to fully master.
If your sheep are scanned – you have a fair idea of what’s coming!
The scanner usually comes to Tiree at the end of January. He sets up with an ultrasound machine and each sheep is scanned. Sheep are sprayed with a mark that tells you whether they are having 1,2 or 3 lambs. If they are having none, they are also marked… and sent to the grazings with no treats.
Once I know which sheep are having which numbers of lambs, it makes it easier to ensure that I feed them the right amounts. Hebrideans could quite easily survive without me. They often tell me that they would prefer that. However, because I insist on crossing them with bigger tups, I feed them extra to make sure they have plenty of energy for those slightly larger lambs.
A good rule of thumb is to feed singles (sheep having one lamb) less than you feed twins (sheep having two lambs). Sheep expecting triplets can basically have a continous buffet. The logic goes that you don’t want really big single lambs – which can cause problems when they try to exit, twins use more resources, and triplets will be exhausting!
I feed the sheep once a day using sheep nuts known as “cake”. They also get access to a vitamin and mineral lick to help them get the very most out of the grass – which is starting to lose nutritional value with the cold and wind.
Feet, teats and vitamins
In two weeks time I’ll bring all the sheep in and give them a wee MOT before they get any bigger.
I’ll sort any sore feet, give them a jag to ward off infection, give them a wee dose of medicine to stop them getting fluke, and check their teats. Once that is done, they should be in tip top condition for lambing.
I will then split the singles from the twins and start feeding the twins more. I might split the triplets out later on and feed them up with extra on top of that.
And then we wait for lambing time… Most years something lambs a few days early, and then there is a lull. The first week is fairly quiet, the middle weekend is nothing short of chaotic, and the second week is steady. There is usually at least one straggler who doesn’t lamb until May! I think they do it just to annoy me.