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.
Photo: Getty
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Michel Barnier is Britain's best friend, but the Brexiteers are too shallow to notice

The right's obsession with humilating a man who should be a great British asset is part of why negotiations are in a mess. 

Sam Coates of the Times has the inside track on what Theresa May is planning to say in her big speech in Florence tomorrow: a direct appeal to the leaders of the European Union’s member states over the head of Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator.

I explained some of the problems with this approach in my morning briefing earlier today, but just to reiterate: the major difficulty is that Barnier’s mandate as a negotiator hasn’t emerged fully formed from the mind of some scheming bureaucrat in the European Commissio, but after discussion and agreement by the heads of member states. There are problems with the EU approach to sequencing talks, but the chances of changing it by appealing to the people who set it in the first place seems unlikely, to put it mildly.  

Barnier seems to occupy a strange position in the demonology of right-wing Brexiteers, I suspect largely due to ignorance about how the EU works, and in some cases Francophobia. The reality is that Barnier is the single politician outside of the United Kingdom with the most to lose from a bad Brexit deal.

If the Brexit talks end badly, then that will be the first line of Barnier’s obituary. Back in his native France, the centre-right is in opposition and none of the candidates vying to lead the Republicans are are going to give him a big domestic job to save his reputation.

His dream of parlaying a successful turn as the EU27’s chief negotiator into running the Commission relies not only on the talks succeeding, but him cultivating a good relationship with the heads of government across the EU27. In other words: for Barnier to get what he wants, he needs both to secure a good deal and to keep to the objectives set for him by the heads of member states. A good deal for all sides is a great deal for Barnier. 

As a result, the Brexit elite ought to see Barnier as what he really is: their best friend on the other side of the table. Instead, they are indulging in fantasies about tricking Barnier, undermining Barnier, and overcoming Barnier. In short, once again, they are bungling Brexit because they don’t want to think about it or approach it seriously. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.