Lambing time

The ins and outs of lambing including the joy of a few early starts in our weekly report from Britai

Well, so much for the entirely predictable gestation period I mentioned last week. Our first lambs, due to start appearing on Sunday 15 April in fact arrived four days early.

Looking slightly dazed and a little disappointed to be suddenly faced with the cold world, the white twins stumbled onto the grass first thing on Wednesday morning, attracting considerable attention from the other sheep, and considerable surprise from me.

As they were shivering a little, the twins and their mother were moved into the byre for a few hours to warm up before being released into a hastily constructed “crèche” area outside. Separating them from the other sheep makes it easier to keep an eye on them for the first couple of days, just to make sure they are feeding and walking properly. It also makes it easier to dock and castrate the lambs the following day, without having to chase them around the field.

After 24 hours or so, all of the lambs need to be docked. This involves putting a tight rubber ring around the lower part of their tail to restrict the blood flow, which will cause it to fall off within about a week. Docking helps to stop their back ends from becoming messy and, potentially, infected by flies. The lambs seem entirely unfazed by the operation.

The unfortunate male lambs also have to be castrated however. This is a similar procedure, which requires a second ring to be strategically placed in order to stop blood flowing to the scrotum and testicles.

Castration makes the ram lambs much easier to handle as they grow older, and means they do not have to be separated from the ewes. Obviously the act itself causes a certain amount of discomfort to them, but, after a short sit-down, they are back on their feet and back to normal again very quickly.

Like most young animals, lambs inevitably invoke spontaneous cooing at their innate cuteness, and it’s not hard to see why. The difference between the young lambs and their parents is striking. While sheep seem to be, on the whole (I’m generalising here, of course), slow, slightly dim-witted eating machines, the lambs are something else entirely. They are inquisitive, unpredictable and playful. They torment their mothers endlessly by getting lost, becoming stuck in fences and behind obstacles, and generally being a nuisance.

Within hours of birth they are away wandering, exploring their surroundings. Although they begin unsteadily, their movements become more certain very quickly, and after a day or two they appear almost possessed by their limitless energy. This is characterised by seemingly involuntary leaping and shaking – often both at once. In a few weeks they will be roaming the fields in gangs, running madly from here to there, throwing themselves in the air and playing complex and incomprehensible games, watched over by disdainful parents who, were they humans, would be shaking their heads at each other and complaining about the youth of today.

So far we have had ten lambs to five mothers. Another lamb was, unfortunately, still-born, which means 20 ewes still left to go. The whole lot should be over within two or three weeks.

Luckily, the sheep are generally able to do all the work themselves, and there are few birthing problems. My girlfriend and I do take turns, day-about, to do regular checks of the field though, just to make sure that everything is going okay and to look for newborns. This means, unfortunately, getting up at six in the morning – an hour I am not well acquainted with, I must admit. But such is the life of a proud parent (not literally, of course).

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.