It is five months since they were born, since the early mornings and late nights of those few weeks, checking everything was going smoothly. But now it is time for the lambs to go.
The vast majority of the croft-reared lambs in Fair Isle will leave the island during the autumn. The first to be shipped left last week.
In the past, two or three livestock buyers and an auctioneer would come into the isle at the beginning of September, visiting each croft in turn, and buying up all of the lambs between them. These lambs would then be shipped out to them as quickly as possible, and would mostly then be shipped on to the Scottish mainland shortly afterwards for “finishing”, or fattening-up, prior to slaughter.
This year though the system has changed. The buyers are no longer going to visit us; we must send our lambs out to them, to be sold at the livestock marts in Lerwick. This has made the job somewhat more complicated and expensive for us, although access to a greater number of buyers could, in theory, work in our favour.
Traditionally Fair Isle lambs have been among the first in Shetland to be sold. The unreliability of the weather means that shipping lambs must be done reasonably early. The lambs are transported on the deck of the ferry, Good Shepherd IV, and it needs fairly good, calm conditions to make the journey tolerable and safe for the animals.
And so last week the first two shipments were made, taking lambs in to the first sale of the year in the marts, which was held on Saturday. A third run, on which our own lambs were supposed to go, was cancelled, because the weather deteriorated towards the weekend.
Early morning round-ups were done, collecting sheep and lambs into the pens, and then putting them into trailers to be taken to the boat. Some of the smaller lambs have been left behind to wait for a later sale, in the hope that they will grow enough in the next few weeks to earn a little more.
As had been predicted, the sale itself was something of a disappointment, with prices generally a few pounds a head lower than last year. This may in part be due to the lingering effects of the Foot and Mouth scare, or it may simply be a reflection of poor meat prices from last year.
Some producers in Shetland have turned to other methods of selling their lambs. Farms certified as organic can find it easier to sell directly to restaurants and specialist markets, and in the future that may well be the direction that some crofters take.
The majority of our own lambs will now go out this week, I hope, to be sold at the coming weekend’s sale. I am trying to remain optimistic that we can at least gain some small profit from this half-year’s work. It can be disheartening to see that both lives and livelihoods are worth so little to some.
Photographs by Dave Wheeler