. My First Lambing Season
It was on the tiny island of Papa Stour, lying off the west coast of Shetland that I had my first experience of lambing. The island is frequently battered by North Atlantic gales and the sheep, Shetland Cheviot cross ewes, are therefore hardy. Lambing is outdoors though the ewes and their lambs are brought inside to rest before being transferred to the ‘nursery’ fields.
Within and hour or so of arriving on the island I was out and around the croft, being introduced to the sheep. There were the ‘teenagers’ (last year’s lambs) in the ‘rise and shine’ field, and then of course the ewes in lamb, around eighty in number. I was told what to look for in ewes about to give birth, and so I soon adopted the habit of looking at their back ends, hoping, indeed longing, for a sign. I was taken into the lambing shed and briefed in the art of tail docking, castration and the routine of feeding mothers with cabbage and nuts after giving birth. My mind was a jumble of instructions and my legs were beginning to ache. How grateful I was then to have a lesson in tractor-driving.
Visitors came for tea and a chat on that first afternoon as I headed up the hill for the routine two-hourly inspections that took place day and night. I stared hopefully at eight ‘back-ends’ – nothing! But then my eye was caught by the sight of two little wet lambs wobbling alongside their mother. I was elated with excitement – out their in the field, on my own with eighty sheep and two new born lambs. I scooped up these two soggy little bundles and tucked one under each arm. With mother trotting dutifully at my heels, I carried my first lambs into the shed. So began my first lambing season.
The daily routine began, for me, around six thirty in the morning: straight outside after a mug of tea to see if any lambs had arrived in the past couple of hours. Any that had appeared would be taken inside, together with their mothers. This was not always an easy task. Sometimes I used the tractor, putting the lambs in the small trailer at the back, thus enticing the ewes in as well. This was a useful and speedy method, particularly if it was raining or there was a gale blowing. At other times it was far easier simply to walk the lambs down with their mothers following. Any lambs born the previous evening or during the night and still inside would then be inspected.
Then it was feeding time for the ‘teenagers’. With a couple of buckets of nuts and cabbage leaves I would trudge up the hill and round to the ‘rise and shine’ field. Headed by Tanya, last year’s caddy lamb and easily identified by her torn ear, the ‘teenagers’ would come running and jumping for their share of the feed. And then the chickens. Haughty and spikey, they would jab at their grain and protest loudly if you got in their way. The rams too, were not to be forgotten as they, quite rudely, wolfed down their nuts.
But by far the most exciting feeding round was when taking food out to the ewes and their frisky, noisy lambs out in the ‘nursery’ field. It was a task that I relished. Carrying two buckets of nuts towards the troughs was the signal or mothers right across the field and up the hill, to lift their heads and start trotting to where I stood. They came in single file, down from the top of the hill, treading exactly the same well-worn track. They hurried, their lambs gallantly keeping up with them. They were like women at the start of the January sales. They made a beeline for the troughs where they pushed and shoved for the best ‘bargain’. And what of their lambs? They became separated from their mothers and would bleat loudly. There was general pandemonium, with ewes and lambs all mixed up in a frantic scramble for food. The noise was quite deafening. And then, as the food supplies dwindled, all would go quiet as mothers returned to their grazing, with grateful lambs scampering happily after them.
The remainder of the day was spent inspecting the still-pregnant ewes and looking out for new-born lambs. Inside there was tail-docking and castrations to be done, ear tagging and recording; vitamin injections to be given to those mothers or lambs that needed a little boost. Pens in the lambing shed had to be cleaned out and relaid with fresh straw. Mothers and lambs needed transferring from the shed to the field. Worm doses had to be given. There was no time to do ‘nothing’.
As we reached the climax of the lambing season, they came thick and fast, late at night,in the early hours of the morning, and throughout the day. Twins appeared in every corner of the field, or so it seemed. The lambing shed was constantly full, with every pen occupied. One cabbage patch had already been cleared, we were into the second. The pile of soiled straw in the yard rose higher and higher. The tractor was constantly chugging up the hill and returning with its cargo of wet, sticky lambs and proud mothers. It was all go.
Each little lamb was an individual in its own right. There was the little hunched lamb. For days she pathetically followed her mother round. And then one day I noticed she was ‘up and running’ along with two black lambs that her mother had acquired. There was Cedric, so large that he had to be ‘helped’ into the world. There were Shetland lambs and Suffolk lambs. There were white lambs, brown lambs, black lambs and mulit-coloured lambs. As they grew stronger they would frolic around in groups, chasing each other and doing sudden sideways leaps in the air. They would call out for their mothers if lost or separated. Their tails would wag furiously as they took swigs of milk from the ewe’s udders. They were delightful.
But the real star of the show was a little Suffolk cross lamb called Irving. Born on the hillside on a very wet Sunday afternoon, he had rather a traumatic start to this life, as, along with his twin, he had an unplanned and bumpy ride in a runaway tractor. Fortunately the tractor became impaled on a fence post, otherwise Irving and his twin would have gone to a watery grave. The two rescued lambs were taken, with their mother, into the lambing shed for rest and shelter. But, alas, there were so many lambs arriving that day that this little family had to be taken outside again before the lambs had sufficient time to bond with their mother. And so it was that, later in the evening, I found little Irving, lost and alone, sheltering forlornly by an upturned boat. How I was longing for a caddy lamb; so I scooped him up in my arms and took him indoors to watch television on my lap. He closed his eyes in utter contentment. Bless his little brown feet.
Irving dominated life on the croft from that moment onwards. Whilst he continued to live outside, like a proper lamb, he nevertheless became attached to his foster mother. Three times a day I would feed him from a Ribena bottle. He followed me around the croft, trotting sedately at my heels, or he would wait by the gate for me. Needless to say, he soon learned to crawl under the gate and make his way up to the house. He would call and shout when hungry or lonely, or just plain bored. He shunned the company of other lambs, preferring to be with humans. Each new arrival into the field would find Irving by the gate waiting to give them a brief welcome. Then he would be off, chasing after the tractor or Range Rover. He thus became a liability and so I sat him on my knees when driving the tractor, and he frequently accompanied us in the Range Rover when we went to meet the ferry. He was a member of the family, and intelligent with it, or so I liked to believe. But of course accidents do happen and he nearly lost his life by getting in the way of the tractor. Another day found Irving swimming out after the rowing boat. He simply couldn’t bear to be left behind. When visitors came they asked if there was a caddy lamb and Irving would appear to be fed and petted by besotted admirers.
There was a lot more besides the lambing. There was Petra the calf and her mother Dorcas. There was Bernard, the faithful sheep dog, and Marmalade the cat. A family of otters gave us great pleasure as they swam, fished and played in the waters below the croft. The first artic terns arrived from the Southern Hemisphere. There were skua and oyster- catchers and plump, ringed plovers. Out in Papa Sound small rafts of puffins and guillemots drifted by, whilst overhead, graceful gannets swooped and dived for fish. There was crabbing with Grandma and Grandson and, of course, great excitement when the body of a killer whale was washed ashore.
Yes, I am looking forward to my second lambing season on Papa Stour. Irving will be a full grown ‘teenager’ by then, and I nurture a secret hope that he might just still remember me.