When the north wind doth blow...
Margaret Finlay - 22 April 2013
It’s not just dairy cattle here at Rainton, we also have a flock of about 500 sheep, mostly Scotch Mule ewes - a cross between a Scottish Blackface ewe and a Blue Faced Leicester tup. The crossbred ewe is supposed to embody the best bits of the each breed - hardiness and good natural mothering, and prolificness with good milk production respectively. The southwest of Scotland where the farm is located, is generally accepted to have a ‘maritime’ climate, with cool summers and mild winters - warmer and wetter than the east is a common description. Not this March.
Our lambing season started on the 3rd of March, and the ewes were in their usual lambing field - the Wild Hill. As the name suggests it’s a rugged sort of field, with lots of gorse and scrub, sheltered hollows and dyke backs. So usually, whichever way the wind is blowing, there are sheltered areas of the field, where the sheep can give birth out of the worst of the weather. We have always lambed the sheep outdoors here on the farm. Lambing indoors undeniably has some advantages (as we were soon to find out!), but it also has its disadvantages, such as increased risk of certain diseases developing in the newborn lambs. For the first couple of weeks, things were pretty slow and steady; the weather was cold but dry, and there was only about 8 or 10 sheep giving birth each day, so it wasn’t difficult to keep on top of everything.
And then, on Friday the 22nd of March, the blizzards began…
Now we’ve had snow during the lambing season before. A few inches here and there. Sometimes it drifted to several feet in the lee of the dykes. But invariably it was gone again a day or two later.
Not this year.
It snowed and it snowed and it snowed and it snowed, and the bitterly cold wind blew it in to every sheltered nook and cranny, and caused the formation of the most incredible snow drifts.
The photo on the right was actually taken in the Wild Hill field - poor sheepies!
On Saturday morning it was all hands on deck as we frantically tried to make suitable housing for the ewes in some of our sheds. Then the ewes that we could find (most of them, thankfully!) were gathered up and brought down to the farm steading. The stress of the cold weather caused a lot of the ewes to lamb in the next 24 - 48 hours - and suddenly we needed room to make up individual pens for these new mothers so they could have a few uninterrupted hours to bond, and for the lambs to get their first drink of colostrum. When a sheep is very close to lambing she is inclined to try and bond with any baby lamb in the vicinity (pesky hormones!) and will sometimes steal a lamb from its real mother! So if there’s a lot of very maternal feeling ewes in close proximity, it can be a recipe for disaster and it’s important for almost constant supervision to make sure the right mothers and babies end up together!
The ewes and lambs are given a unique number or letter so we can keep tabs on who belongs to who and make sure everyone is present and correct! Here are the new mothers and lambs in the individual pens.
The sheep that had already lambed, and whose lambs were a week or two old, were remarkably resilient. We probably lost around 15 ewes and in the region of 40 lambs but it could have been worse. Others in the region suffered even greater losses.
There were slim pickings in terms of grass for the girls outside, but they got extra feed rations for a week or so.
Slowly but surely, the snow began to melt, and the sheep and their lambs could finally go outside. Now all we need is some warmer temperatures so that the grass will grow!
Margaret grew up on her family's 850 acre mixed organic farm, home of Cream o' Galloway ice cream, in south west Scotland. Having graduated from Glasgow Vet School in 2007, she now divides her time between working as a small animal vet and helping out on the family farm. The latest project at the farm is a revolutionary new low-input dairy system.