Nights in the sheep shed – once romantic, now just exhausting!

Years ago, before we became A&G, our magazine was a blog called The CountryWives. We came up with that name because Annabel and I had both moved out of London to live in the countryside. So when a real country wife, Sue Andrews, sent us this fascinating slice of rural life, we couldn’t resist sharing it with you…

It may sound smug, and I don’t mean it to, but Covid hasn’t really affected farm life.  Our lack of desire to see anyone, grandchildren excepted, possibly indicates how antisocial we are.  At busy periods like lambing our adult children are usually conspicuous by their absence.  They know they’ll get roped into doing something they have no desire to do if they visit.  But the animals still need checking and feeding and their breeding cycle continues. 

As I write this, it’s ten days until we start lambing. Please can it be a bit warmer then.  Minus 10 in a cold draughty farm building at two o’clock in the morning has long since lost its novelty.  Nights in the sheep shed with the boyfriend, when both in our early twenties, could be bodice-ripping exciting.  Fifty years on it’s just exhausting.

Sue with her sheepdog Maisie

With a busy lambing in a relatively short period, we would struggle without help, but Covid precautions bring complications.  I usually feed all our lambing staff, but have suggested they bring their own sandwiches, and we’ll take it in turns to utilise the warm ‘milk’ shed where the kettle and biscuits live and lamb’s bottles are prepared.  Otherwise, we’re basically outdoors, even with a roof over us, and common sense and social distancing will prevail.

But what will the weather bring?  This bitter cold is the hardest to cope with.  Once everything becomes frozen the workload trebles.  Even down to the effort of closing all the shed doors behind you, although you’ll be back there in a few minutes.  That few minutes of cold wind can freeze the taps and pipes again. 

As usual, before we start, the pre lambing dramas unfold.  Yesterday morning we were greeted by one ewe prolapsing and another just looking distinctly off colour.  The prolapse hadn’t been out long and while I held her, my husband washed it off and pushed it back, fixing a small plastic prolapse spoon in place to hopefully keep it, and her unborn lambs inside her.  The sick ewe was more complex.  This could be a metabolic problem caused by lack of glucose, often seen in late pregnancy.  Twin lamb medicine given in warm water and antibiotics administered, along with a pain killer, while the first ewe simply had antibiotics.  Fingers crossed they’ll both look better later.

This morning the wind changed from the North to the South West, but the wind chill hasn’t improved.  Probably the coldest morning this week.  Thankfully both patients looking good now.  The sick ewe was licking the high energy block and chewing her cud last night, always a good sign, but even better when she came into the trough for breakfast this morning.

When I turned Clemmie, the grandchildren’s ancient pony, out this morning wrapped up to the eyeballs in equine duvets, she ignored the slice of hay I’d put by the gate.  Her attention was taken by two crows, social distancing, staring at each other in the middle of the field.  At least, I think they were crows.  I didn’t have my glasses on.  They could have been penguins, judging by the temperature.

The main lambing flock are still outside, but looking at the weather forecast they’ll be in on Monday.  Normally they’d already be in, but with underground insulated pipes to their troughs, it’s easier to keep their water running outside than it is in the buildings, and dry enough to get feed to them.  Sunday night promises a thaw and typical of our British weather, Monday may be the only day we will have dry, as milder conditions will bring the rain on Tuesday. Ideally the ewes should come in dry, pneumonia being a hazard when housing damp sheep.  From then on, the ewes act like football fans travelling with Easyjet.  Rowdy and impatient for hostess service.  Luckily, we are set up to feed them in ‘walk through’ feeders, as trough feeding within the pens would be suicide.  The feeding frenzy is vocal and forceful, but then suddenly quiet reigns and peace is restored.

The shed is designed with easy access to small individual pens where ewes and their lambs will bond for the first 24 hrs.  Ewes are checked to see they are milking well, and lambs tagged and identified with their tag number sprayed on the ewe’s side.  Red if just a single, blue if twins.  If children get mislaid, this tells us how many lambs she should have with her.

Eventually all becomes serene.  After the struggles, the sleepless nights and the misadventures that are rarely avoided comes pleasure.  Leaning on the gate looking at ewes and lambs grazing happily in spring sunshine.  It will come.  It does come.  Life continues on the farm, and hopefully improves worldwide.

Sue Andrews is a very busy woman because she is also an author. Her writing has been described as ‘an amusing cocktail of sheep farming, horses and a hectic family life, enhanced by friends, wine and whisky.‘  Buy If Clouds Were Sheep at Amazon HERE and Jumping Over Clouds at Amazon HERE

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Images courtesy of freepik