Some things never change. Not far from where Thomas Hardy created the noble shepherd Gabriel Oak almost 150 years ago, this season’s lambs are making their tottering entrance into the world.
At Stinsford Farm, the agricultural hub of Kingston Maurward College near Dorchester, 400 heavily laden ewes are corralled into barns and pens waiting for motherhood.
In the larger enclosures the pregnant sheep are herded into groups depending on whether they are expecting singles, twins, triplets or even quads.
Once the lambs arrive, they are put in smaller ‘bonding pens’ with their mums. Several of the older lambs bounce and gambol on their mum’s back, using her as a trampoline. The ewes don’t seem to mind.
At night it is a peaceful place, the barns illuminated by mellow lighting, the only sounds the shifting rustle of hundreds of animals in their straw-lined pens and the occasional bleat as a mother sheep calls to her new infant. The main breeds of sheep at the college are Lleyn and Mules and several of the lambs have Suffolk dads, who contribute to their black or pie-bald fleeces.
A group of Level 3 agricultural students oversee the nocturnal shift, but farm manager David Cottrell is always on hand to make sure all is well and to help out in any emergency.
David said: “It has been a challenge for us the past couple of years because of the weather being so wet. Forage has been short for the sheep, so we are not expecting a bumper crop of lambs this year, though hopefully we will get the quality.
“You can tell when they are ready to lamb – they can’t get comfortable and paw the ground to make nests in the straw. They get up, sit down, get up, sit down and look around to see if anything has fallen out yet. They also start calling to their lambs even though they haven’t been born.”
The lambing season officially lasts from Bonfire Night to April Fool’s Day and ewes have a five-month gestation period. At Kingston Maurward, they are scanned to check how many lambs they are carrying.
“We like to look after the old girls,” said David, who has been farm manager at the college for 10 years.
“The thing about our sheep is they are used to being with people so they are remarkably laid-back and not at all flighty. Some of them are real characters and will interact with you.
“Looking after the sheep and lambs is popular with the students. We promote the highest possible animal welfare here and teach the students basic care of animals which helps prepare them for life after college and in the industry.”
This particular evening the three students working late are James Hall, Harry Goring and Alistair Bye, who are all on a Level 3 Agricultural Diploma course. James and Alistair come from farming backgrounds and all three want careers in the industry.
They spend the evening checking on the sheep, feeding and watering their fleecy charges and cleaning up the day’s muck and soiled straw.
As the night progresses one of the larger ewes starts to look uncomfortable and begins to prepare for giving birth, scraping the straw into a ‘nest’, panting and standing with her head raised.
After several minutes of pacing, lying down and staggering to her feet again, a bag of clear fluid appears and hangs from her nether regions before bursting. A few minutes later a pair of tiny hooves appear, followed by a head and then a brand new, creamy-fleeced lamb slithers wetly onto the straw.
Mum turns round to inspect the new arrival, licking away the mucus birth sac and pawing at the lamb to get it breathing and moving. James picks it up, strips off the rest of the afterbirth, sprays its umbilical area with iodine to ward off infection and clears its nasal passages with a straw.
There is a small moment of drama when another triplet-bearing ewe hoves into view, broad as a woolly battleship, and barges mum out of the way before starting to lick and clean the new lamb. Every time the real mother comes close, she is broadsided by the imposter and can’t get close to her baby.
“It happens a lot,” explained James.
“They get broody and carried away and this is why we need to put the sheep and their new lambs in bonding pens, so they get to know each other.”
Mum is eventually allowed back to her lamb, but then has to take a break as she goes into labour once more, this time producing a tiny creature as black and shiny as liquorice.
With a pair of newborns to clean, the two ewes are kept busy until the third makes its entrance, black legs and head attached to a creamy body.
Once the lambs are on their feet they will be taken with their mum to their own pen for a few days before moving to bigger pens and then out into the fields. After a couple of days their tails are ringed and then drop off.
When they are still in the bonding pens, the triplets are usually given bottles to supplement their mother’s milk and some of will go to ewes with only one lamb, or whose babies didn’t survive the birth.
In a few days they will be out in the fields with the other sheep and lambs. And because Stinsford Farm is a business like any other, at some point many of them will end up on someone’s plate alongside the roast potatoes, vegetables and mint sauce.
Because some things never change.
- You can see the lambs for yourself on the Kingston Maurward Ewe Tube (yes, really) at kmc.ac.uk/gardens_ animal_park/ewe_tube