New lambs are the surest sign that spring has almost sprung. Mary Griffin visits a farm where students and teachers highlight the journey from pasture to plate.
A little lamb frolics in the hay as his mother bleats across the pen that holds the first newborn lambs of the year.
While lambing won’t get into full flow until next week these ewes – each sprayed with a number from one to four – have delivered early and each has two newborns eager for attention and food.
As sheep farmers across the UK gear up for a busy couple of months, the farmers at Moreton Morrell in Warwickshire are hoping to get more than a new flock out of the process, with teenagers mucking in for the first time, learning the tricks of their future trade.
“We’re here to help monitor, just in case something bad happens,” says William Clarke, an 18-year-old who hopes to take over his family’s dairy farm in Leicestershire.
“The sheep will usually lie down and put her head in the air. We tend to leave them on their own and give it half an hour before checking if there’s anything there.
“She might bleat a bit but generally it’s not a noisy process. The birth usually takes an hour to two hours and we’re on hand to make sure the lamb is alive.”
William is one of 20 students at Moreton Morrell, near Wellesbourne, studying for a National Diploma in Agriculture (an alternative to A-levels) – and one of 12 specialising in livestock.
The students are currently working to a 24-hour rota, alternating night shifts so that a team is watching over the lambs around the clock, like a farmyard version of Call The Midwife.
“You can get lambs that are backwards or that have their legs twisted or two can be coming at once,” says Hannah Hooper, aged 19, clutching a newborn displaying an orange patch of iodine on its naval where the umbilical cord has been snipped.
“The ewe will lick her lamb, and try to lick it dry,” says William, “and the lamb, if all is going well, should get up and try to start walking around.
“We’d check the lamb for a full tummy six hours after they’ve been born. That lets us know it’s getting the milk that the ewe produces, with antibodies boosting the lamb’s immunity.
“We make sure the ewe is up and walking around as well, to make sure she’s fit and healthy.”
Just before Christmas, the farm’s 350 ewes were scanned, showing that all but 18 of them were pregnant. At the end of a five-month gestation period, the farm is expecting nearly 700 newborns over the coming weeks, with most of the sheep carrying twins, while some carry only one and others carry three or four.
Course tutor Caroline Cummins is leading the students in a fostering process, explaining that each ewe has only two teets, so if she delivers more than two lambs there will be a fight for survival between the siblings. Instead of risking weak lambs – or worse – the fostering scheme takes the third lamb and places it in a pen with a ewe who has delivered only one.
She says: “We take the spare lamb and, if it has already been licked dry by its mother, we dunk it in water and cover it in the foster ewe’s afterbirth because she knows what her own lamb smells like.
“We then take that ewe’s own single lamb away into another pen and leave her for 10 minutes with the foster lamb.”
In just four months the new lambs will be ready to be sold for slaughter, each weighing about six stone and fetching around £75 at Rugby livestock market. But 30 to 40 of the strongest new lambs will stay at the farm for future breeding.
Farm manager Jonathan Clarke says: “At lambing weekend, the public can get up close and personal with the animals.
“We don’t hide anything, everything’s open for people to look at and see exactly how farming is.
“I think the recent media coverage of the horse meat saga has definitely highlighted a lot more of the ins and outs of the meat trade.
“A lot of people don’t seem to realise where their meat comes from beyond Tesco. We need to make people more aware that what they are eating starts here.”
* Newborn lambs will be on show at the farm as part of its lambing weekend on Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 4pm at Nethermorton Farm, Moreton Morrell, costing £5 for adults and children (15 and under) go free. For more information, visit www.warwickshire.ac.uk.