Thursday, April 15, 2010

Lambing for Beginners at Moulton College

We’ve some new arrivals to announce (including a new lamb) but, attempting to keep a certain chronological order to this blog, I’d better tell you about the lambing course I attended at Moulton College on Easter Saturday. There is a local agricultural college here in Brittany but, unfortunately, they don’t do short courses for particuliers (members of the public). My parents live in the same town, so I was able to visit to visit them at the same time.

All good courses probably start in a classroom but showing is better than telling, and doing is better than either, so our instructor Sam Herring soon had us in the lambing shed. We were a mixed bunch of students with, for example, Charlotte still at school studying A-levels hoping to become a vet and Jim who’d arrived via the army and IT industry but is now drawn to the job his father still does (aged 71!) shepherding in the Borders.

This is our fourth year of lambing with our rustic Ouessants and we have, so far, never had any problems. In fact, it’s so quick we don’t see it and though Sam showed us the signs to look for—a seated ewe with her head in the air, licking her lips and arching her back, I’ve never seen these hints of impending lambness before. Our four ewes lamb in the field—to be honest they are always in the field—and so I was seeing a completely different approach to sheep husbandry. All the mums-to-be are re-located into a sheltered, straw-lined barn under constant supervision until they’ve safely given birth and proved themselves capable of taking their lambs back to the field. I assume that access to the ram is programmed as well, to ensure that the ewes give birth over a relatively small time span. In contrast, Monsieur goes back with his ladies when we wean the lambs, so he can enjoy his pleasure as the mood takes him and not have to indulge in the sheepy-shag-fest of his commercial brothers. The result is that our first lamb was born on 14th February and the last arrived last Sunday.

That spread of births over several weeks wouldn’t have suited our teacher Sam.
Can you imagine trying to plan your lessons around the capricious birthing behaviour of a group of grass-eating beasts? We were lucky though, as we had several births throughout our day, including the most difficult at the end. I’ve already said how powerful the “doing” part is in learning and Sam plucked a bouncily healthy lamb from one of the pens to show us how to tie a rope round its head to help it from its mother’s womb: the right way to do it is to pass the rope around the back of its head and tie the knot in between its open jaws, that way you pull the nose out first and without strangling it.

We strapped a prolapse harness around a baa-ing ewe who hadn’t prolapsed and inserted a feeding tube into the stomach of a lamb who didn’t need one (to share the inconvenience around Sam did select a different lamb for each of us). These mild disturbances to healthy creatures were invaluable to us students as the next time we need to use the techniques might be a real ovine emergency.

Right at the end of the day, Peter, the very-experienced head shepherd told Sam that a ewe he’d had his eye on had gone an hour now and needed some help. She was a “shearling”, meaning that she’d been sheared once but this was her first lambing and so things can be a bit more complicated, added to which she doesn’t really understand the strange thing happening to her body. We were invited to feel the correct presentation of the lamb (a nose and two front feet) before one of the students (whose name I can’t remember—sorry) took hold of the legs to help the lamb out. During this “emergency”, Pete’s mobile phone rang. Calm as a cucumber, he answered it, giving directions to someone coming to the college. My response would have been: “Can’t talk—I'm on the lamb!”

A perfect end to a fabulous day and I shall feel so much more prepared to deal with our lambing seasons in the future, thanks to Sam and Pete. the photos show an introductory talk in the lambing shed; me inserting a feeding tube into a lamb; Sue feeling how a correctly presented lamb feels; an assisted birth; and, in case you were worried, the same chap up on his own two feet and drinking from mum.

For more info on lambing, click on the following link for a free handbook from DEFRA, which will open or download (depending how you have your computer configured) as a PDF file: Improving Lamb Survival