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).