Lambing time. Again.

Malachy successfully battles mastitis and reveals some of the other challenges lambing brings

We are now just over halfway through our lambing. Fourteen of the 26 ewes have done their job so far, giving us 25 lambs. The weather has, for the most part, been mild and dry; there have been no serious birthing difficulties or further mortalities, and, apart from a slight lack of sleep, things are generally going well.

The week has not been without its problems though.

One of our ewes, shortly after lambing, appeared to have a swollen udder. Upon checking, we found the milk was a light pink colour – like strawberry milkshake. This meant mastitis.

The ewe was taken in to the byre and given a dose of penicillin. The lambs too were given injections, in case they picked up the bacteria from drinking the milk. The next few days were spent milking the infected side empty, four or five times a day, to try and drain the infection and to make sure the lambs were drinking as little of it as possible. If we didn’t solve the problem quickly, we would have had to take one of the lambs away.

Gradually, after four days of sore fingers and aching knees (milking a sheep is not the most comfortable of activities) the milk became paler and, eventually, white again. One further shot of penicillin, and mother and lambs were back out in the field. We were lucky. Sometimes mastitis can be very serious, and, if it’s not caught early enough, the udder can be permanently damaged.

Our other problem has been a question of numbers.

Most sheep have twins, and some have singles. Either is fine. Sometimes however, a mother can have three, even four lambs. Last Monday night we had triplets.

From a financial perspective, the more lambs the better. But from a welfare perspective, it’s not quite so simple.

Ewes have only two working teats, so do not have enough milk to feed three lambs. They manage fine while they are small, but as the lambs get bigger it becomes a strain on her and can damage her teats. It is possible to keep all three lambs with their mother, and to supplement the feeding of one or all of them, to take the pressure off a bit. But this is not always a good solution.

The best way to guarantee the health of the mother and all three lambs is to take one of them away from her and bottle feed it. It then becomes a “caddy” lamb: tame, motherless and reliant on you for its food.

While a cute pet lamb may sound like a wonderful idea, it really isn’t. Working with animals requires a certain lack of sentimentality, particularly when it comes to life and death matters, but it doesn’t mean a lack of empathy. Taking a lamb away from its mother at just four days old is not an easy thing to do. Seeing her sitting alone in the byre in a little box of straw, looking utterly miserable and utterly dejected, is really not very pleasant. She spent the first day or so calling to her mother outside, but eventually gave up.

She is now back outside again, having got used to feeding from the bottle. She also tries feeding from every sheep in the field, and each in turn pushes her away. After only two days apart, her real mother rejects her now also. Watching her desperately trying to be mothered by somebody, anybody, makes me feel like a complete bastard. But at least she’s alive.

I won’t write about sheep again next week, I promise.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Liberal Democrats are back - and the Tories should be worried

A Liberal revival could do Theresa May real damage in the south.

There's life in the Liberal Democrats yet. The Conservative majority in Witney has been slashed, with lawyer and nominative determinism case study Robert Courts elected, but with a much reduced majority.

It's down in both absolute terms, from 25,155 to 5,702, but it's never wise to worry too much about raw numbers in by-elections. The percentages tell us a lot more, and there's considerable cause for alarm in the Tory camp as far as they are concerned: the Conservative vote down from 60 per cent to 45 per cent.

(On a side note, I wouldn’t read much of anything into the fact that Labour slipped to third. It has never been a happy hunting ground for them and their vote was squeezed less by the Liberal Democrats than you’d perhaps expect.)

And what about those Liberal Democrats, eh? They've surged from fourth place to second, a 23.5 per cent increase in their vote, a 19.3 swing from Conservative to Liberal, the biggest towards that party in two decades.

One thing is clear: the "Liberal Democrat fightback" is not just a hashtag. The party has been doing particularly well in affluent Conservative areas that voted to stay in the European Union. (It's worth noting that one seat that very much fits that profile is Theresa May's own stomping ground of Maidenhead.)

It means that if, as looks likely, Zac Goldsmith triggers a by-election over Heathrow, the Liberal Democrats will consider themselves favourites if they can find a top-tier candidate with decent local connections. They also start with their by-election machine having done very well indeed out of what you might call its “open beta” in Witney. The county council elections next year, too, should be low hanging fruit for 

As Sam Coates reports in the Times this morning, there are growing calls from MPs and ministers that May should go to the country while the going's good, calls that will only be intensified by the going-over that the PM got in Brussels last night. And now, for marginal Conservatives in the south-west especially, it's just just the pressure points of the Brexit talks that should worry them - it's that with every day between now and the next election, the Liberal Democrats may have another day to get their feet back under the table.

This originally appeared in Morning Call, my daily guide to what's going on in politics and the papers. It's free, and you can subscribe here. 

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