Stories from the Barn
A hive of activity in the Hampshire downlands
Lambing Season is on its way
Lambing season is on its way for many parts of the UK.
It’s a busy time for farmers as lambing season gets underway. It is one of the joys of countryside living, everyone looks forward to seeing the lambs in the fields. It is a real and certain message that Winter is behind us and the seasons are moving on.
The Down land fields around the barn are full of pregnant ewes. They have been part of this landscape for centuries, grazing the chalk uplands and shaping the land. Having just enjoyed reading ‘A Shepherd’s Life’ by W.H Hudson again, it seems the role of shepherd was such a vital part of the economy going back hundreds of years.
Preparing for the new lambs.
The period from March through April is probably the busiest time for most farms but work starts long before. The health of the new lambs begins months beforehand as each sheep is carefully monitored. The ewes are scanned to determine how many lambs they are carrying. Their nutrition is then carefully fine tuned so that each ewe gets the right amount of feed.
It is essential for farmers to ensure the ewe has a good diet so that they can produce good sized lambs. It means keeping an eye on the grass levels through January and February. Farmers can often be seen taking out hay, silage or grain to supplement the Winter grass. Farmers then need to monitor the ewes to make sure they do not put on too much weight as an overweight ewe can have big lambs which cause birthing problems.
Some lambs will give birth in the field but many flocks will be kept indoors in birthing pens, where they can give birth in the dry and warm. Any complications during can be dealt with quickly as well. Once the lamb is born it continues to need care and attention as young lambs are vulnerable creatures. They rely on their mum’s colostrum to give them immunity to disease and they need to be kept warm and dry. The work and care needed to produce a healthy lamb is more complex than most of us know and returns vary each year. Therefore it is essential for farmers to use all the tools available, especially when they could be lambing over 500 lambs.
How then did our ancestors cope with lambing?
The Medieval Lambing Season.
The Medieval lambing season was a very different affair, sheep were bred for wool, milk and meat. By the time of the Black Death sheep husbandry was already a very important part of the economy in Britain. Both sheep fleece and meat were valuable products and a successful lambing season could mean the difference between profit and loss. Records from farms of that period show a considerable fluctuation in the weight of fleeces and mortality rates in the flocks.
Climate change was in part responsible for this. The Winters from about 1370 – 1450 certainly recorded a few exceptionally bitter episodes. However there were also many milder Winters. Another likely reason for changes in the quality of the lambing season was the price of wool. If wool prices were high then the sheep were well fed with supplementary feeding. When the wool prices dropped, feeds were cut and the sheep produced weak and sickly lambs. There also seems to have been a decline in good quality hay for the sheep to eat. Back in the C15th, the health and productivity of sheep was as dependent on the quality of fodder as it is now.
Milking the ewes.
Ewes in the C14th were also milked. Ewe milk was more nutritious than cow milk and made wonderful cheese. This had a two pronged effect. The lambs were weaned earlier and fed cows milk instead not nearly as good for them. Prolonging the lactation of the ewes also disturbed their breeding cycle resulting in barren sheep.
The role of the shepherd in the lambing season.
The work of the shepherd during the lambing season was perhaps the most critical factor in success or failure. They attended to sheep during the delivery of lambs but just as important they carefully watched the lambs and sheep in the months after birth. Suckling ewes could have all sorts of problems with udder infections which, if not caught in time could lead to death. Weaning of the lambs was also a skilled job requiring detailed observation. A lamb let onto pasture too early could die of inflammation. Following the black death there could quite possibly have been a shortage of skilled shepherds. Shepherds were also left with larger and larger flocks, all adding to the stress of a successful lambing season.
Sometimes shepherds brought sheep into a Winter holding area but such decisions were driven by economics. If it was not viable economically depending on wool prices, then the sheep were treated quite harshly.
Medieval sheep were largely bred for wool. This did eventually change as the wool markets faltered and breeding flocks were kept as against flocks for wool production. This would change animal husbandry as too much inbreeding resulted in a poor show of lambs. Over the next three hundred years, the agricultural revolution and the enclosure acts had profound implications for sheep rearing.