Country Matters With the Hodge: The Reality of Sheep Farming

Far more is going on than it might appear with sheep farming.

Country Matters
By The Hodge
‘A lamb is as dear to a poor man as an ox is to a rich one’.
Old proverb

Christmas is past and all the food and the drink and the partying and indulgence is over. Ditto the New Year celebrations. Your liver may have taken a battering and the bathroom scales have gone badly awry in the cold weather but you survived it all. Well done! Now all you have to do is to get through the rest of the winter and the drudgery of work and all will be well.

So, as you begin your daily commute spare just a moment’s thought for the sheep-keeping farmer or his shepherd. A lot will have started lambing before Christmas; others may be starting now or in the next few weeks. Many believe sheep are creatures whose one aim in life is to die. Accordingly, lambing time means staying up with all the roly-poly ewes to ensure that their ambitions are not easily fulfilled.

Sheep need help with lambing just as most western ladies need a midwife. Most sheep lamb at night so the period of new life for most farmers means weeks of night duty in a cold barn surrounded by sheep, many of which will try to present their lambs the wrong way round or back to front meaning that the shepherd must be on hand to put his arm up the birth canal to rearrange things in the hope that the lamb can be safely delivered and kept alive. Sheep were probably designed by nature to produce one lamb once a year but by selective breeding, farmers have modern types that will regularly produce, two, three or even four little beings which all adds up to extra productivity. On most farms, as the pregnancy develops, a specialist scanner will come along and inform the farmer how many embryos each ewe has so that she can be colour-marked so that the guessing is taken out of the equation. Clever, eh?
Inevitably, some of the more determined ewes will achieve their life’s ambition and shuffle off their ovine coil during the process and the farmer will have the added joy of trying to get a less productive ewe to foster those offspring or hand rearing them once they’ve received their initial life-giving colostrum, found in the mother’s first milk.
And I’m not talking about a smallholder here with a dozen or so ewes but a serious farmer with hundreds of ewes all set to give birth over a six week period. Sheep farming is a seriously intensive business for the farmer. I was brought up on an arable farm with dairy cows and pigs. Whenever I asked my father why we didn’t have sheep, I would be answered with a non-committal grunt that I learnt meant that the subject should be changed. When I got to about 12, instead of a grunt, I got sent to spend part of the summer holidays with a cousin in Hampshire who had a large pedigree flock of sheep. I spent three weeks dagging – an ancient term for the removal of clinkers of unmentionable substances that had collected under the tail – and dealing with foot rot – an affliction of many sheep that produces gasses of pungency once experienced never forgotten – so that when I returned home, the subject was never broached again.
So next time you have a roast leg of lamb or a lamb chop or cutlet of English or Welsh origin, spare just the tiniest thought for the dedication and perseverance that meant that the lamb itself was born and survived long enough to make it to your table – against all the odds.

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