COUNTRY LIVES

Gordon Lewis, hill farmer, mid-Wales

"The traditional time to start lambing round here is the second week of March, but we aim to be early because we've got prolific breeds of sheep and we get a lot of spare lambs: if we beat the rush we can sell orphaned ones, no problem. Later on they become harder to shift. The sheep right up in the hills lamb later still - early April - to avoid the worst of the weather.

We farm cross-bred sheep while most of our neighbours have pure mountain breeds. That's because as a small farm (160 acres in all), we have to be relatively intensive. We aim to get twins off every ewe each year. The downside is there are a lot of problems with multiple births, so we have to bring them indoors for the lambing. Our neighbours have got the acreage to be content with one lamb per ewe so they keep hardy breeds and delay lambing until the weather gets warmer. Then they leave the ewes to get on with it on their own.

During lambing, someone's got to check the sheep every four hours. So I stay up till three in the morning and then Helen, my wife, gets up at five or six. I come out again a couple of hours later and just keep going until late in the evening. Then I grab a snooze in a chair or something until about two and the whole thing starts again.

You can tell a ewe is in labour because she starts to chatter, to lick her tummy and to walk in circles. Most of the time we have to intervene with the delivery - that's the price you pay for multiple births - so I'll push her to the floor and feel inside. At the height of lambing when you can have 30 ewes in one day, everything can get too much. Then my in-laws lend a hand.

If I have a ewe with one dead and one live lamb, I fetch an orphan and smother it in the live twin's placenta. A ewe's maternal instinct is based entirely on smell. Once she has accepted the orphan I leave them to it.

Sometimes we rear the orphans ourselves - last year we had eight. Actually it's not that bad: once you've got a lamb sucking a bottle he's very little work. You've just got to remember to refill the bottle four times a day.

Officially, lambing goes on for about six weeks, but it will go on for quite a bit longer this year because we didn't take the tups out. All our ewes get two chances: if a ewe is barren one year we'll keep her on to the next. We always give one year's grace, even if the ewe is getting on a bit. After two years in a row it's down the road to market - we can't afford to keep them longer than that. This year we're hoping for about 600 lambs from 450 ewes. That's sold, mind, not born - you always lose a few to disease, weather and foxes.

I shear all the sheep myself in late May and early June. That's about 460 of them in all (we don't clip lambs). The wool goes off to Newtown where the Wool Marketing Board sells it for us. It's not worth much - a couple of years back we were only getting a few pence per kilo although it's better now. Harvest is another busy time because we produce all our own silage and hay, but can't afford contractors. That means cutting and baling 45-50 acres on our own.

But lambing is much the busiest time of year for us - it is certainly the most exhausting. You don't find me smiling much during March and April."

Gordon Lewis was talking to Bel Crewe

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