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May 2021

Written for Cumbria Life.

Maria:

Shearing has just started. This is the time of year where hands that have become dry and cracked from a lot of hand washing during lambing, become baby soft from the lanolin in the sheep fleece. Tups (rams) and hogs (last year’s lambs) are sheared first. The best quality is from the hogs; a thick coat from an animal whose only job has been to thrive since it’s birth twelve to fourteen months previously. The tup fleece is not so luxurious as they work hard tupping the ewes in October/November so their energy is spent chasing girls, not growing a beautiful fleece. Towards the end of June the ewes are sheared. We don’t clip them earlier as the wool helps keep their udders warm. If they get cold it can cause mastitis or black bag. Mastitis, if not treated can kill them and both can mean they ‘loose’ a teat. Shearing the ewes is a stressful business because while they’re being sheared, this is the first time they will have been separated from their lambs. The lambs are screaming for mum and the ewes are screaming for their babies. The tension and drama puts everyone on edge. Once the ewes are sheared and put back out with their lambs, the screaming continues as the lambs struggle to recognise mum with a haircut! It’s all quite chaotic but eventually they find each other and quieten down, the lambs, now huge, kneeling down under mum for a comfort drink.

Although lambing went very well this year, the hatching of eggs has been a disaster. None of my duck eggs hatched and only one turkey made it out of its shell alive but died a day later. I really don’t know if the incubator wasn’t working properly or the freezing mornings when I collected the eggs killed their fertility. I’ve put one last batch of turkey eggs in a new incubator and because of the more even daily temperature when I collected them, I’m hoping I finally get a hatch.  Because I had no turkeys and was desperately looking forward to rearing some, I asked around on local poultry Facebook groups if anyone was selling day old turkey poults. I was in luck; a farmer had just hatched some that day with more hatching as we were on the phone. I dropped all work commitments planned for the next day and drove to Yorkshire to collect them where I found myself on a messy but beautiful, red brick, historic, family farm. I thought our farm was untidy until I saw this place. However, because this was someone else’s mess, I could see the clutter as a vast and sprawling family archive and history, all on display. Some old and half broken things looked still in daily use, some things sat gathering dust in the same spot for decades and objects repurposed over the years. I wished I could have had a proper tour but there were four other people besides me collecting hatchlings and I know a farmer’s time is precious. I have 15 turkey poults now; Bronze, Bourboun Red and Crollwitzers. They are still under a heat lamp but when they’re fully feathered they will live outside with the other poultry.

Next month: we are helping with the planning a wool event on Saturday  3nd July at The Farmer’s Arms in Lowick. 

John:

The farming year never halts and you just have to work with whatever the weather decides to do. It has been a very cold, slow spring, which has made life difficult for us as well as the animals. The grass hasn’t managed to do much growing so we have still been feeding the cattle hay. This means we are trying to get all the spring work done while still the winter routine of daily feeding continues. On the bright side, the slow grass growth has meant we have had a fantastic show on spring flowers in the fields. Some might call them weeds but they are so important to insects. Dandelions, Daisies, Cuckoo Flower and Bluebells adorn the fields with their colourful flowers. These plants are often hidden in the grass so our loss has been their gain. Hopefully by the time you read this article, summer will be starting and we will have wall to wall sunshine and the stock will be contently basking with full belly’s and happy offspring. Here’s hoping.

Off the farm, well in the virtual world of zoom and teams meetings, I have been involved in consultations with DEFRA staff alongside other farmers and NGO staff on the development of new environment schemes for the countryside. It’s been an honour to be invited to help shape the future of how we move into a new era of farming. The pandemic has changed all our lives and been a massive challenge but the requirement to move to virtual meetings has meant we can be on the farm one minute and in a meeting or conference the next. The other evening I walked straight from shearing sheep to being sat with Tim Farren our MP and others on a Q&A on the future of our National Parks to an audience from all over the world. 

Next month we will be embarking on a small step towards normality as we are running a RBST show for Cumbrian young shepherds as part of an event at the Westmorland Show ground. With no agricultural shows last year and many cancelled this year it’s a small step, but these young shepherds are desperate to show off their skills and sheep. It’s so encouraging to hear from so many young people who are passionate about Rare Breeds and our cultural heritage. Let’s hope we have a sunny weekend.

April 2021

Written for Cumbria Life.

John:

Spring has well and truly arrived with rain, sleet and snow upon us as lambing got underway. No two years are ever the same, so no matter how well we plan, we’re always having to adapt to whatever the weather throws at us. Last year was fantastic weather for lambing, the year before not so good and ever few years we get a great heap of snow. The rain and sleet may have coincided with the start of lambing but the forecast has been good for the next few weeks so things are looking promising.
The sheep have wintered well so we’ve had very few lambing problems so far (fingers crossed). We decided to keep less sheep and because it was a kind winter, we saved money in feed costs so that should outweigh having less lambs to sell later in the year. We scan the sheep so we know how many lambs they are having. The ones due to have singles can stay outside and the ones scanned for multiples are brought inside the barn, close to their due date. This means we can give them a bit more attention and it saves some of the fields so they have plenty of grass when they go out with their lambs. 
It’s always an exiting time seeing the new lambs arrive and how your breeding plans have worked. We sell the majority of our female lambs to other farmers in the autumn so it’s important that not only are they strong and healthy but look good as well. You might not believe it but farmers are very looks conscious! Each different breed had a distinct type that defines it from other breeds. We get exited to see if the rams we used have produced great lambs: all that time and investment will either pay off or be a bit of a disappointment. So far I’m pleased, however, a few sheep had been too eager to wait for their suitor to arrive and snuck out for the night with some local lothario. So, we had some surprise early lambs, not of the breeding we hoped for. Still good lambs though so I can’t complain.

Next month – we will still be lambing but these will be out Cheviot sheep which lamb outside up at Parkamoor which is on Bethecar Moor.

Maria:

Lambing pretty much takes over two months of our lives. This year, I decided to share more of the lambing process by creating Instagram videos on our Dodgson Wood account. I’d never done this before, preferring to post photos with captions, but it seems viewers really like the raw, live footage. With so much content available that’s carefully edited and curated to give particular impressions, the unedited clips show more of the reality. Yesterday we had a very difficult lambing situation. The ewe had looked like it was trying to lamb all morning and when John investigated, realised that two lambs were stuck in the birth canal. They were completely entwined, and both trying to come out at the same time. She would never have managed to lamb these herself had she been left, but John, with over 45 years lambing experience, new what to do. They problem was, he has really big hands so getting his hand in far enough to untangle the lambs, still inside the ewe, would have been difficult, if not impossible. Fortunately the two vet students we have with us on placement had small enough hands for the job so John was able to direct them. “See if you can get your hand round the back of one of the heads and then feel down to a shoulder and along the leg and bring it forward.” It’s such a tight space it can feel like your hand is being crushed and the temperature inside the ewe’s body is surprisingly hot. I was doing a live broadcast of this this but stopped because my phone was almost out of battery and I was also worried it was getting too graphic for the people watching. However, after I stopped filming, John and the students managed to get the lambs untangled and successfully delivered two big, healthy lambs. And, then, to everyone’s surprise, out popped a third, unexpected, bonus lamb! I needn’t have worried about the viewers, I had lots of messages letting me know how much they enjoyed watching, despite the anxiety of not knowing how it would turn out.  

Lambing is my favourite time of year on the farm. It’s intense drama with lots of highs and some devastating lows. I love being right in the middle of it. However, without John’s vast experience, I’d no doubt run up huge expenses by calling the vet on a daily basis! 

Next month – I will probably have some bottle-fed lambs to feed but will be busy with baby runner ducks if the incubator has worked.