Months away from the mint sauce

When you know each sheep personally, you can really lose your appetite at lambing time

The lambing season is an exhausting time for any farmer who keeps sheep, but somehow it is most traumatic if you have only a few ewes, as we do. In a flock of hundreds, no matter how humane and careful a shepherd is, he (or she) simply has no time to dispense much individual care or sympathy. With only a dozen animals, on the other hand, you know most, if not all, of them by name, and cannot help becoming personally involved with their problems.

Experience has taught us to watch the ewes closely in the final days of pregnancy. So long as they stick together, we can be fairly sure that no birth is imminent; but as soon as one goes off to some secluded corner, we know that her time is almost up. If the weather is reasonable our policy is to leave expectant mothers alone, out in the field, while they are producing. Only if they seem to be in trouble do we intervene - and then, when the lambs are born, we bring the families into a barn divided by hurdles into small nursery pens, so that the infants can gain strength and the families bond together.

This year began auspiciously. The first two ewes to produce both gave birth to twins during the night, and there were no complications. Then came a set of triplets - a mixed blessing. On the face of things, it seems splendid to have got three lambs from one mother; the trouble is, she has only two teats, and even if she has the instinctive skill to rotate her offspring so that all can feed, there is a risk that the strain of suckling will bring on mastitis - a disease that can be cured if caught in time, but which may easily put one side of the udder out of action, thus effectively ending the ewe's breeding career.

After the good beginning, things went downhill. A singleton lamb died within hours of birth, apparently of hypothermia; and as the mother had almost no milk, she could not foster any orphan that later events might create. Then another ewe rejected the first of her new-born twins, butting it away whenever it tried to approach. The only way to save it was to bring it into the kitchen and install it beside the Aga.

At first it wouldn't drink from a bottle. When it did start to suck at a rubber teat, it seemed to inhale the milk, and developed a rattle in chest. My wife rushed it to the vet, who diagnosed pneumonia, but reckoned the animal had a chance and gave it an antibiotic injection. For reasons too complicated to explain, we named the little ram Sophocles. Now we had to take a tough decision: he would do better with a companion, and the best bet all round seemed to be to filch one of the triplets from its mother. This we did, taking elaborate precautions so that the ewe would not hear her snatched baby bleating. So Sylvia - white as snow after thorough maternal washings - also came to live in the kitchen.

For a few days progress was agonisingly slow. Neither lamb seemed to realise that milk was the difference between life and death. But soon both saw my wife clearly as a foster-mother, and followed her round like little dogs.

Outside, things were going better. One ewe went into labour early in the morning, and after several hours appeared to have exhausted herself, with only the lamb's front feet showing. But when we tried to bring her in, she raced about so wildly that we felt sure the lamb must be dead. Not at all; with me restraining at the front and my wife manipulating at the back, she brought forth not just one fine big ram lamb, but a second as well.

Finally all the ewes bar one had done their stuff. Only Jenny was left. Early one morning we were thrilled to see her cleaning up a lamb in the nearest paddock. Alas - when we brought her in, I found the leg of another, severed at the hip. We could imagine what had happened all too clearly: while she was having the second, a fox had nipped in and killed the first. No wonder she was intensely possessive of the survivor.

So our fortunes have been been up and down. Our two orphans, established in a creche of straw-bales in the yard, are doing well. The kitchen floor has been scrubbed as never before. We, though, are condemned to a routine of four-hourly bottle feeds for weeks to come, and saddled with two surrogate children, so sweet that they will be hard to sell and impossible to eat.

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