Wednesday, 31 October 2012


It's no Hurricane Sandy, but we've got howling winds and driving sleet now. One turkey is sick with a mystery virus, my oldest ewe lamb has come down with pneumonia, and my pumpkin harvest this year is a total of four measly fruits -

So my Halloween display looks a bit frugal. I've lit a few lanterns but my decorating efforts were hampered by the weather and my time was redirected to livestock: putting little plastic parkas on lambs, moving the sick one with her mother to a dry stable on Milkweed, rebuilding the shelter pens for the rest of the ewes and lambs, haying and watering everyone. Samhain seems a better description than Halloween today, what with all this pagan weather and primitive shelter-building.

All the wood stoves are lit, and clothes are drying. There are enough natural cobwebs and spiders around this place to pass for festive, if we get any trick-or-treaters tonight.

My treat is a big cognac, which I'm having now to dull my constant worrying about the young stock. It's a shoot day tomorrow, and this is perfect weather from the keeper's point of view: birds hunker down out of the wind and stay in the drives, so we know where to find them. It seems mean to push them out and make them fly in this wretched weather, but the wind makes them a very sporting target - 30 miles per hour plus whatever excitement the winds add to their speed and change of direction. Getting shot at is a lot better than getting shot, from the pheasants' perspective anyway.

Wishing you all a happy Halloween and safe passage from hurricanes, poor harvests, and ailing animals.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Grumpy in Stocks

Some readers have asked to see Grumpy the ewe in her stocks -

Although she seems to feel that it's a punishment and humiliation I'm inflicting on her, it has made milking her a one-person job. And that person - me - doesn't get kicked in the head now.

She can move her head up and down, and eats hay while I fill the milk jug. The whole process, including catching her and wrestling her into the stocks, takes about ten minutes. The end is the best bit: she's freed and I get to top-up feed two little lambs whose mother isn't as milky as the rest. I never get tired of bottle-feeding lambs.

We had cold rain yesterday, followed by freezing temperatures, so we quickly adapted the maternity unit making windbreaks out of pallets and roofs out of tarps, and putting down straw beds for extra insulation -

It's not picturesque, but my lambs are warm and still alive. Even Grumpy appreciated the extra bedding and kale treats -

Or maybe not.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Ticking right along

Ewe 2836 lambed at 6 am this morning. The whole village knows this because she started calling for her lamb even before it was born. It's the hormones: the contractions start, the ewe lays down and pushes, then gets up to check where she laid to see if baby arrived with that last push. She calls and listens for a response (I guess in case it's disguised in long grass). Sometimes their hormone-addled brains get the order mixed up. It's not uncommon for a ewe to try and steal another's baby during her own labour.

2836 had a ewe lamb. It got a bit stuck when its head tried to come out before its front feet (it should look like someone diving into a pool). This birth was a double bonus as it gave me a chance to foster one of the triplet boys onto a mother with a spare teat. It's a simple technique: rub foster lamb in the afterbirth so it smells like its sibling (don't let ewe see this), then stand back, let ewe stand up and check out the delivery. So far the ewe has been happy to accept both her lamb and the interloper.

But nothing goes that smoothly. Just after the successful fostering, I checked the teats to clear any blockages. No milk. Nothing. I hoped milk production was just running a bit behind schedule. I had to give the new lamb replacement colostrum, then it was Grumpy's turn to provide. I put her in the stocks. She wrenched them out of the ground, finding strength in adrenaline and pure spite. So I banged them in deeper. Eventually I milked enough to sate both lambs now on Ewe 2836, and a few hours later her own milk started to flow.

While all this was going on, Eunice popped out two ewe lambs by herself, and she's a first timer -

Minutes old and still pretty gooey

So our fox-deterrent maternity unit is taking shape -

Mums and babies are recuperating -

Biiiig yawn

I've been cutting kale and turnips from Mike's pheasant cover crop, which the ewes love and helps them produce more milk. At the moment they're all safe and warm enough in these pens but the weather's turning colder this weekend. Cold and dry is do-able. Cold and wet is a disaster, a lamb-killer. We may have to move our maternity unit to the horse stables at Milkweed field, after our shoot day tomorrow. We'll see what the forecast says.

We're only one week into our lambing period, and already five out of seven ewes have lambed. Last year we lambed for 56 days. Our running total this year is five ewe lambs, two ram lambs. All I can say for sure is - so far - it's not been our worst lambing season. Yet.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Gregor popped!

Finally. And it was anything but straightforward. The first lamb was a ewe, and it had a front leg folded back so I dug around and got it into position, and Gregor pushed it out.

The second was a ram lamb had its head back, so I dug around and got its head pointed the right way but had to help pull that one out.

By the third lamb, a little ram, Gregor was too tired so I pulled that one out shortly after, rummaging about inside poor Gregor up past my elbow.

The whole process including ensuring the lambs suckled, giving everyone jabs and cleaning navels, then setting up the maternity pen took five hours, but Gregor did all the hard work.

The ewe lamb is standing on her brothers

Look at these heartbreakers! The ewe lamb is in the middle

Her reward is, now that the babies are out, she can lie down again instead of sitting up like a dog. She greedily ate a bowl of barley, oats and sugar beet that I offered her. I made a pan of Rice Krispies treats as my reward (and for a necessary sugar high).

Now I'm off to sneak a look at my neighbour's set up, to see how he gets another mother to take a lamb using an adoption pen. Grumpy may yet get her lamb! I'll keep you posted.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Let's try this again, shall we?

Yesterday was the annual Harvest Festival in our village, a pot luck supper in the village hall where we "locals" come together to complain about crop failures and new government regulations. I love a good whinge as much as the next person, but supper coincided with our semi-regular, themed dinner party with friends and I couldn't miss out on Paella Night!

Most of the guests at the dinner party have livestock so there was still plenty of commiseration to go around: a couple of sick chickens, my lamb, stories of smaller egg harvests and unproductive vegetable gardens, even a tale of donkey training which, so far, has been neither easy nor successful!

We had to leave early as we're still on lambing duties, and I was already falling asleep in my creme brulee. The alarm went off at 4 a.m., and I pulled on enough clothes to be warm and decent, and walked across the road to check the ewes. I could see one separate from the others already, a common behaviour in a ewe about to lamb. A lamb would be a mixed blessing in this warm but drizzly weather, born in the dark to a tired and disheartened shepherdess. On the other hand, lambs are like burps: better out than in.

I startled a fox in the paddock and it shot across my path like the devil was hanging onto its tail.


In my sleep-addled condition, my pessimistic nature combined with a bad start to lambing caused me to panic and assumed it had killed a lamb, that I was too late, oh woe is me. But, my timing was pretty good, and ewe 2844 was just starting to lamb. An orange dot on her neck reassured me that we were expecting a single lamb, and even a hungry fox is no match for 90kg of maternal howling fury defending one lamb.

I wandered back indoors to make a cup of tea. I returned only minutes later to find her licking a little ewe lamb dry, nickering to the lamb, its wobbly head just visible over the long grass. It must have shot out of her like it was on greased tracks.

Everyone's still tired 

Only eight hours old - how can you not worry about something so tiny?

The loss of our first lamb this year has made me a paranoid wreck. By 9 a.m.  I had already been to the vets for advice, colostrum replacement (dried milk with antibodies), and more needles, syringes, and stomach tubes. It's important that the lamb get colostrum in the first 6 - 12 hours, to avoid an early death and an upset woman standing in a paddock in her pyjamas. I tried to observe the lamb suckling but no dice. So I panicked erred on the side of caution and stomach tubed her with the replacement stuff, then jabbed her with antibiotics for good measure.

She will probably be fine. She's a strong, single lamb on an experienced ewe with lots of milk. It's my inexperience that's the biggest problem. And that damned fox hasn't helped my humour any; twins or triplets would be vulnerable.

I couldn't find a foster lamb for my grumpy ewe. All the other shepherds are having runs of single lambs this year, even the big commercial farms. Much to Grumpy's disgust, I have put her in a pen next to the rest of the flock, and I'm milking her once a day. As she's loathe to cooperate, I have to tie her head to the fence and get one of the boys to hold her by a bag leg so she can't kick me in the face, which is the only part of the whole process that she enjoys.

I should rename her Milky - she's giving about half a litre per milking. Her milk is valuable as I can freeze it and use it later to feed other lambs. If both sets of triplets survive, I hope to leave them with their mothers, but I will need to bottle feed the slow growers. Grumpy's milk with be just the thing. And I've found another use for Chinese take out containers -

Ready for labelling and freezing

Tomorrow is a shoot day, so I will quickly milk Grumpy at the lunch break. I'm willing the remaining five ewes to keep their legs crossed for me until Tuesday afternoon, but I predict a set of twins and a set of triplets before the start of next week. When Eunice - my only first-timer and expectant mother of twins - is laid on her side, you can see the lambs kicking and twisting about in there. She looks at that spot, then at me as if to say "It's been doing that a lot lately. I'm as surprised as you are."

Let's hope any more surprises are good ones.

Friday, 19 October 2012


I had to earn my Farmer in Training t-shirt today. Our first arrival of this year's lambing season was listless and, when I checked on her between shoot drives, her belly was distended and she was struggling to breathe.

I rushed her to the vets but the only vet on duty was a young, newly qualified girl. She did her best but her inexperience showed. Still not knowing the cause, we both could see the lamb was fading fast. The vet could put her to sleep, but it would cost me another £40 including disposal charges. Or, I could take her home and put her to sleep with a .22 round.

I made the fiscally smart, emotionally challenging decision.

The lamb was made comfortable and I drove the few miles home, resolved to do what was necessary. I laid her on a soft, dry spot on the lawn and got the rifle from the cabinet, loaded it, and readied myself.

I came back to find the lamb sitting up. Sort of.

Maybe I should rethink this.

I mean, maybe she could make a miraculous recovery. I don't know what's caused it after all.

So I ran indoors, leaned the (unloaded) rifle against the kitchen cabinets, and rummaged in my animal meds drawer for a syringe. I was intending to load her up with antibiotics, as a start. To fight any infection. Maybe.

I was only gone a minute or two, but came out to find the lamb lying on her side, and starting to bloat up again.


I swapped the syringe for the rifle. As I loaded and pulled the trigger, I thought "Where there's livestock, there's deadstock.". It was cold comfort.

I saved the lamb's body in a covered bucket, in case a triplet is born tonight or early tomorrow. I might be able to foster one onto my grumpy - now lonely - ewe. If not, I'm going to have to catch her up and milk her, saving the milk for tubing any cold, late or small lambs in our future. I'm being as pragmatic as any proper farmer.

And it really sucks.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

What did I tell you?

Babies come when they're ready, not when the book says. My grumpy ewe gave birth early this morning, on the tail end of a horrendous rain storm, to a single ewe lamb. It was an easy birth, my only contribution was to put some iodine on the lamb's navel, then back away from a seriously hormonal new mom giving me the hairy eyeball and stomping her foot.

I just hope her daughter doesn't inherit her mother's temperament.

Once More into the Breeks

Our first shoot day was this past Saturday, a full month later than usual. 2012 is "The Year of Being Perpetually Behind": crops were late to harvest, sheep were late to shear, lambs are late to be born, and so on. The pheasants and partridge grew slower in the cold, relentless rain which passed for our summer, and didn't reach maturity - their "shooting weight" - until this month, so we postponed our start date to give them a sporting chance.

This is the first year of being a keeper's wife that I know enough to run on autopilot. Dogs got fit, socks got mended, cooking for staff got done alongside daily chores and gardening jobs. The night before our first shoot day, Mike realised his keeper's tweeds no longer fit him. A new suit has been ordered and, in the meantime, he's wearing my breeks and a mismatched plaid waistcoat, which seems to be the height of fashion in the field anyway. Sometimes it pays to simply adapt and fly by the seat of one's pants.

A few new additions arrived while we were muddling through our shoot preparations -

Three very inquisitive and charming turkeys. Unfortunately, one has met a curious and unusual death, hanging itself in the poultry netting put up to protect them from predators. So now we are two, a hen and a stag by the looks of them, which means they will probably survive becoming Christmas dinner to become parents in next spring.

The two hens squabbling over a nest of eggs both abandoned their duties, but our little chocolate hen, Mrs Cadbury, hatched a single chick in the corner of her nestbox -

We've called him (or her) Chip. 

We've also had relatives and friends to visit us this month. All were good sports and got stuck into the chores du jour from sheep wrangling, to worming, to chicken judging. My aunt Meg helped me to select the best Orpington cockerel to keep for breeding, and the others went to ice camp a couple of days ago. She even answered the call with me when our neighbours needed help with their in-lamb ewes. They are lambing in a purpose-built barn, and much more organised than I've ever been at lambing time. I smiled to read their bulletin board with all their lambing records posted underneath the title: "Lambing 2012. Our Motto is 'Help or Shut Up'".

My own lambing starts this Saturday. On paper anyway - as with all babies, they will come when they come. My mornings now start before sun up with a trip across the road, while still in my pyjamas, to check the mums-to-be. Then it's coffee, chores, and shooting or work, before finishing with supper for all of us, and late evening livestock checks - again, in the dark.

But I love this time of year. Shoot days are the culmination of months of hard work. And I love the cast of characters that come shooting. On the first day we had Mrs H. and her new labrador pup. The pup's parentage is in question as Mrs H let her husband's (rather friendly) terrier Pepper keep her old labrador company the night before she went off to the stud dog. The resulting pup is slighter than a labrador and, when sat next to Pepper, the resemblance is hard to miss. 

The pup is slightly gun shy, too - nervous of the loud banging when shots are fired. Mrs. H tells me her solution is to stuff cotton wool in the pup's ears. It's certainly helped with the gun shy problem, and gives the pup a great excuse to ignore Mrs. blowing her whistle to come back. Still, both the pup and Mrs. H seem satisfied with the arrangements, unconcerned by dubious parentage or lackadaisical recall. 

Quincy had her first day in the field too, chaperoned by Pip. I was impressed by both my girls' work. As she gains experience in the field, Quincy is going to be a superb gun dog. 

I love shooting season.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012