It’s been a busy month on the sheep front.
My little flock of Dorset Downs is generally pretty low-maintenance: a quick daily check plus a longer session every six weeks or so to do feet and bums and that’s about it.
But twice a year I have to pay them a lot more attention.
The first, unsurprisingly, is spring, when it’s lambing time. I become ever so slightly obsessed by my sheep through April and May – to the point where I actually turn down work so I don’t have to leave them.
Considering how much they give me in return – three lambs in the freezer this year, that’s our year’s supply of meat plus one to sell, give away or have parties with – I don’t really complain.
The second time of year they need my undivided time is now, in late autumn, when the cycle starts all over again.
First I take the year’s ram lambs over to the abattoir: by then they’ve been separated from the rest of the flock for a month or two in a little field over the road, eating their heads off and turning into teenagers. At this point they start being really annoying (getting their heads stuck in fences, escaping from time to time, pulling down wire and generally making a nuisance of themselves) so I’m usually quite pleased to see them go.
At about the same time I separate off this year’s ewe lambs: this year, in fact, just one, which means the spare sheep (known as Ewok for her fetching fringe) goes with her. And since I’ve got them in, I give the breeding ewes a once-over to make sure feet are trimmed and all is well: this is the last time I’ll look at them till the ram goes home after Christmas.
It’s not been the best of years for the breeding ewes: I lost one of my best, Blackberry, to a twisted gut this summer (Custard, the ewe lamb, is her orphan). Just one of those things: all sheep farmers will tell you that where you’ve got livestock, you’ve got deadstock (and that sheep die for a living – I’ve found that one less true, though maybe I’ve just been lucky).
So the result is that I’ve got three to lamb again this year: suits me fine, as one is my other oldest breeding ewe and Blackberry’s half-sister, Apple, who always produces twins (she’s the one on the right in the picture above). Then there’s her daughter Pie – front left – and Cream, back left, who’s lambing for the first time this season. So that’s at least four lambs if all goes well – and all I really need is two, to keep us fed. Anything else is a bonus: one of the nicest things about aiming for self-sufficiency rather than profit is that there’s no pressure to produce any more than you need.
And that’s my next task: off to fetch the ram, which I rent from a proper Dorset Down farmer about an hour’s drive from here in Dorset. It’s always a bit of a heart-in-mouth journey. Last year I could hear the ram hurling himself at the sides of the small aluminium trailer every time I stopped at a traffic light: this year, thank goodness, I’ve ended up with a less suicidal chap who also happens to be quite pretty. Still didn’t hang around long at traffic lights though.
All that done, it’s calmed down a bit round here. I scratch the noses of Ewok and Custard each morning on my way up to let out the chickens, then spend five minutes hanging over the fence to check the three breeding ewes plus ram; and that’s pretty much it, set fair for the next few months.
You count five months forward to estimate the first new arrival – so that’s lambs from 7 April, I hope!