Long rays of spring sunlight filter into one of the barns turned lambing shed at Broughton Grounds Farm, a tenanted mixed-farm on the Broughton Castle estate near Banbury. Several dozen ewes are bedded on a thick layer of straw or stand at the hayrack chomping and munching. The occasional soft rustling of straw adds to the atmosphere of quiet contentment. The sheep are a cross of Upland Mules and Texel with Mules. Upland Mules have dark markings and coats that can look a little shaggy this time of year, but they are resilient and very good mums. Texels look like the woolly white sheep in a picture book, but because the lambs tend to be bigger, the ewes can have a harder time giving birth. After tupping in autumn, the ewes are scanned to see whether they are pregnant and with how many embryos. In this barn all sheep carry a red mark on their coat which indicates that they are expecting twins. In another barn across the yard are the ewes with a green dot indicating singles and in a third building there’s a good number of sheep with a purple mark which means they are expecting triplets.
I’m keeping an eye on a ewe which has chosen a spot in the corner of the traditional old stone barn, a bit separate from the others. With her hooves she starts to make a straw nest, when she eventually settles down she bends her head backwards like a star gazer – which means she’s in labour. When I get closer I can see the contractions ripple across her belly and under her tail, two tiny hooves become visible in the amniotic sac. They are pointing downwards which means the lamb is in the right position for the birth. If they were pointing upward or just the head became visible it would be time to alert the farmer, Dad Andrew Taylor, or his son, James. Both are excellent ‘midwives’, able to cope with hooves twisted back and even breech lambs. But this ewe manages all by herself. All I need to do is wipe the lamb’s head and pinch its tiny nose to make sure it can breathe. Its mum immediately starts licking it clean, which gets the lambs’ blood circulation going. Just a few minutes later the lamb is already able to stand up, but it will have to wait a bit before it can drink – mum is lying down again, ready to give birth to its twin. Twenty minutes later and with the ewe gently pushing them, both lambs have found her udder and are suckling.
Several other ewes seem to have found the proceedings inspiring: One comes to watch and lick the lambs before it finds a spot along the wall and goes into labour, too. After a few quiet hours, suddenly a wave of births has begun, three hours later there are eight healthy newborns.
Penned up and numbered
James and Andrew Taylor, and Harry Caulcott, the full-time farmworker, are busy helping ewes in the twin and triplet barn, setting up pens and equipping them with straw, water and a feed bucket. Once the lambs are up and drinking, one of us carefully takes them by the forelegs and carries them to one of the pens with the ewe following closely behind. Mother and lambs will stay there for a day or so. The lambs will have their navels sprayed with iodine to prevent infection. Later, a tight rubber band is placed about two thirds up the tail which will stop the blood flow and eventually shorten the tail. It’s a welfare measure: sheep are not good at keeping their bottoms clean. If the tail is long, there is a high risk that blow flies may lay eggs into a messy tail and bum, which can lead to maggots eating at flesh and, if left untreated, even death. Finally, a number is sprayed on the sheep’s coats – the same for each mother and her lambs. This indicates that it’s now time to move the trio to the pasture just beyond the farm gate. For a moment, ewe and lambs stand outside a little bewildered, then they trot off to explore the grassland, meet the other sheep and check out the hedges and trees that provide shelter and shade. In the evening, just before sunset, two of us grab shepherd’s crooks and walk the pasture for pairing: is each ewe with two lambs and are they hers? Most of the sheep keep their little ones close by, but each night there are a few lambs standing forlornly, baaing for their mums. Sometimes the right mum calls back or even comes to fetch the lamb. At other times the lamb runs from one ewe to the next just to be head-butted away. We use the crooks to catch them, check the number and go in search of their mums. Mostly, all is well after the reunion, but occasionally a mum simply rejects her lamb. One of the last lambs standing alone, miserably baaing, is a tiny black and white one with a red ‘71’ sprayed on its side. The Taylors take meticulous care of each animal. Andrew checks 71’s belly – it hasn’t had milk for a while. When we find it alone again the next morning, we bring all three, 71 mum and lambs, into the farmyard and pen them up once more. Now they can be regularly checked. The ewe receives grain rations to help with milk production and hopefully the lambs will be able to feed. And it works. Three days later ewe 71 is grazing on the orchard pasture next to the farmhouse and her lambs have put on a bit of weight.
For 16 of the other ewes and their lambs it is moving day once again. James has spent another night in the lambing shed and is trying to catch a few hours of sleep. So, it’s down to Andrew and Harry to find the oldest and strongest lambs and their mums, round them up, walk them back into the farm yard and load them into the trailer. It’s hard, tedious work, sheep are escape artists! But the grazing land that comes with the tenancy and is rented from other landlords makes for a patchwork of pastures dotted around the farm. None of them is more than a mile away, but the distance still requires the sheep to be loaded – eight ewes plus 16 lambs at a time – driven to the right pasture, unloaded and checked to make sure that each ewe is reunited with her lambs. This meadow will now be their home for the summer and once they are settled, the twice daily checks aren’t as time consuming.
Orphans and the “Orchard Gang”
Despite the care they take, the all-nighters and the often 15-hour days, James and Andrew Taylor put in during lambing, not everything goes to plan. (And I am not talking about the walker on the public footpath who left a gate open for the sheep to wander off and forced James to spend two hours reuniting 202 lambs with their mothers in darkness….). Things go wrong. A ewe dies. Another one rejects her lambs. Or consistently head-buts a foster lamb away. Though it is expensive and time consuming, the Taylors raise such orphaned lambs by bottle feeding them formula milk three times a day. The lambs that were abandoned at birth are so keen to be fed, they almost jump out of the pen and empty their bottle in record time. But those who were fed by the ewes for a time find it difficult to adjust, being held by a human and accepting the bottle. It takes several days and a lot of patience until they finally start feeding with the others.
And there are the six lambs that were orphaned during the first lambing period in February. They are about 10 weeks old, live on the small orchard in front of the farm house and are such hooligans that I start referring to them as “the Orchard Gang”. As soon as anyone shows up, they race to the gate, jumping, pushing and head-butting until they manage to grab the nipple of a bottle and turn into noisy sucking machines. As I am trying to hold on to the rack with its four bottles and make sure everyone gets a share, I do start to think about their legs in connection with rosemary, garlic and some wine… And I do realise that I can feed lambs and eat them. By the time they will be sold for slaughter they will have had a great life and the very best of care. Selling them will be a substantial part of the farm income. During their lifetime they have improved the soil through grazing and leaving behind manure. They are an essential part of sustainable agriculture and a functioning farm ecosystem – one that we can only maintain when we eat the lambs farmers like the Taylors produce on a diverse family farm like Broughton Grounds.
My thanks to the Taylor family for letting me stay. In a second blog piece I will explore what Brexit, the loss of direct basic payments and ELMs will hold for the future of the farm.
James and a friend have made a lovely video for the farm club he runs – remotely since the start of the pandemic.
Marianne Landzettel is a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK, the US, continental Europe and South Asia. She worked for the BBC World Service and German Public Radio for close to 30 years.Follow her on twitter at @M_Landzettel Images used with kind consent @M.Kunz
The Slow Food blog welcomes contributions on the topics of Food, Farming and Agriculture. The contents may not entirely match the views of Slow Food, but reflect the journeys of the authors. To write for us please click here