The image of fluffy playful lambs prancing around fresh meadows on a sunny spring day whilst their watchful mums nibble at the grass amongst the early spring flowers, is an image implanted on many country lovers and townies minds alike.
At the Museum, lambing is one of the events of the year for many visitors, staff and volunteers alike. Although the Museum’s farm is not intended as a petting farm as at some farm attractions, visitors enjoy seeing the animals in an historic farm situation. And during the lambing weekend last May, visitors were able to see the ewes and their lambs in the traditional lambing fold as those once used by Chiltern farmers over many generations.
As a more recent farm volunteer, 2017 was to be my first full experience of the lambing season. Along with other volunteers, I would have a small part looking after the ewes and their lambs. I sensed as the year progressed from winter to the early days of spring, that amongst some of my fellow volunteers there was a noticeable period of increasing excitement as lambing time fast approached!
The nice thing about volunteering at the Museum is:
- You can do as little or much as you like or are able to do. You can choose not to get involved in particular tasks that you might not enjoy or feel capable of doing. Great, no expectation to get involved with lambs being born at 3.00am then!
- However, you are encouraged to have a go at most things if you wish. Try something different and even go outside of your comfort zone if you feel adventurous. Uh oh! But fortunately, no encouragement this year for me to help with the birth of lambs at 3.00am or any other time.
The farm manager, Conway Rowland takes on the midwife duties as well as making night-time farm visits to check all is well. So a very sleep deprived Conway is glad that his team of volunteers can help out with other lambing duties as well as the routine farm jobs that must be done.
Lambing talk around farm gets going in March with discussion about when the first lamb will be born and more importantly, what should it be called (decided by a naming competition to raise funds).
But for farm manager Conway, lambing has been on his mind all year, in fact from the very moment the first of the previous year’s lambs were born. This is because he will assess lambs to determine which ones will be most suitable for breeding from.
The farm’s sheep are Oxford Down, a rare breed that was once commonly found in the Chilterns. Hence in order to help ensure the breed survives well in to the future and the farm’s own flock is fit and healthy, a couple or more of the lucky boy lambs will be kept uncastrated to develop into rams, either for tupping (mating) with the farm’s ewes or to be sold on to another flock owner to help keep the Oxford Down gene pool healthy. Conway will also be looking out for suitable rams from other flocks to introduce in to the farm’s stock.
Tupping takes place in the autumn. From then on Conway will ensure the ewes get the right diet and environment to graze on to ensure the flock produces healthy lambs.
Last winter was a time for Conway to consider grazing requirements for the sheep and their lambs. It is not preferable to use the same pastures as used the previous year because of the risk of harmful parasites that can prevalent in those used by the sheep. By leaving these fields sheep free for a year or more can help reduce the risk of sheep being infected.
So volunteers spent much time during the winter clearing scrub from under-utilised fields and replacing old fencing providing usable fields to increase the sheep grazing options.
The next task was to prepare the lambing fold ready for the new born and their mums. The lambing fold had been partially occupied by the museums two goats whilst their usual pen was removed whilst filming took place around the farm’s barns for a recent TV drama. The lambing fold, which includes a central area surrounded by individual pens, had to be thoroughly cleaned and repaired before it could accommodate the ewes.
Seventeen lambs were born over a number of weeks through April. During this period, volunteers helped keep watch on the lambs through regular checks day and night, particularly important for lambs in their early days. It was also important to ensure they were feeding from their mother and keeping healthy. Full marks to this year’s ewes as no lambs needed bottle feeding!
As weaning of the lambs commenced feeding time became a battle as the lambs greedily tucked in to the twice daily feed with the ewes. Over indulging young lambs would foam at the mouth and suffer a little later if allowed to eat too quickly. So to slow their eating pace and aid their digestion, it was necessary to battle through the feeding mothers to restrain the lambs from over indulging. Not an easy task as the ewes battled for space to feed, pushing any humans out of the way. The lambs then found plenty of gaps to dart in an out and avoid capture! As long as they were feeding from their mothers, it did not matter if they did not eat too much. It was more important to ensure the ewes got their fill in order to feed their growing offspring.
The ewes and their lambs were allowed to move from the lambing pen during the day to pasture allowing their mums to graze. Due to the exceptionally dry early spring, grass near the lambing fold was at a premium. So a number of excursions to richer pastures a little further from the lambing fold had to be organised during the day. This added to the entertainment as the ewes and their lambs were moved across the site whilst staff and volunteers were kept busy encouraging lambs, sometimes a day or so old, to go with their mums and not drop behind, or to stop the older lambs from going off exploring the exciting new world.
The lambs are quickly growing up and now no longer return to the lambing fold. As they are growing up, they still get into mischief as do any youngsters. With the rain finally arriving in May, the fields quickly returned to life providing the sheep with plenty of luscious grazing. Feeding the ewes and their lambs with the special food supplement gets more interesting as not only does the person feeding get mobbed by the ewes, but also by now by lambs that are getting bigger and stronger by the day.
As a volunteer I have learned and enjoyed much about the work involved around lambing. I have tried to keep objective about the whole process and avoid getting attached to lambs as it is easy to do. Unexpectedly, it has been the ewes that I became more attached to as they came to me for attention whilst doing chores around them. Some seemed to enjoy a nose or ear rub and maybe seeing them suffering in their pregnant state during the warmer days of early spring attracted my sympathy.
So as the year moves on and the lambs progress to being called hoggets (sheep aged less than one year that have yet to be sheared), I shall watch development of the flock with interest. Some will be sold on during the year, making space for next year’s arrivals, whilst others will remain on the farm during their breading years.