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.
Getty
Show Hide image

What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.