• 11 The first lambs of spring

    John is talking gently to the lamb urging it to take a hold on its mother’s teat. He laughs a ‘hello’ to us with his head half muffled in the ewe’s back; he is crouched with one hand bent under her stomach to position the teat and the other wrapped round a half-hour old lamb, encouraging it to drink the precious colostrum that flows before the milk comes in. The bloody afterbirth is still trailing out behind the mother. 'It’s a problem,' John says, 'when a ewe has such big tits.'

    John has strong, gnarled hands, the lines of knuckles like lines of time. He tells us he did intend to have this ewe killed last year, sensing that she was not strong enough to lamb again, but she was somehow missed. ‘She has the death mark,’ he says: one of her horns is bound with green and yellow tape. It’s a reminder of the natural cycle of life and death, and the necessary work of a farmer. ‘Ay, they die at the end, or they die at the beginning,’ said another farmer to us and every year lambing does bring life as well as death.

    This year has seen a particularly hard winter, and many farmers have faced many deaths: pregnant ewes buried in drifts and lambs born dead, or unable to make it beyond the first few hours or days. On some farms, John tells us, the wind was so persistent that it blew snow into drifts that filled the barns. John has a characteristic way of being light hearted, understated. ‘It’s not been a good Spring.’

    John’s sheep haven’t had it too bad though, he says. It helps that they are lambing inside, where it’s dry, and today the wind isn’t strong enough to seep in and scatter the warmth. In this barn John has gathered the ewes carrying twins, most of them Swaledales. There are about twelve pens the right size for an individual ewe and her lambs; larger pens on the other side contain groups of ewes waiting to lamb, some of them restlessly padding the ground, a sign that they may be in early labour.

    Lambs that haven’t been able to stay with their mothers are in a separate pen: pet lambs hand-fed by John or suckling on the red plastic teats protruding from a feed tub. Others are settled into a third barn. The small lambs frolic or lie lazily over their mothers’ backs and will stay inside until John deems them strong enough to go into the nearby fields.

    John is dressed in the standard ‘uniform’ of a farmer. His dark waterproofs are now smeared with mud and piss, and blood from the births. He’s strong, and he’s gentle. One minute he will straddle a strong ewe and drive her into a waiting trailer for a lift to the field or lift two lambs confidently, one in each hand. The next he is settled next to a ewe and her new lamb, and gently cups the lamb in his huge hand and shows it to the ewe, placing the lamb’s head under her nose. 'Do you know him?' he asks in a soft voice. He concentrates and laughs and smiles in equal measures.

    The ewes at Low Beckside will be lambing for some weeks yet – the last to lamb may not do so until early June – and when we leave, we know we will visit again soon. From the northern Lake District, we drive south to Kentmere, where Hannah Dickinson and her family have Herdwicks, Swaledales and Rough Fell sheep, and most of them are lambing outside.

    When we arrive the rain has eased off, but it’s still cold. A north wind bites at our faces and funnels into the spaces between the barns. We grumble because it’s just three days until May Day, and it still feels like winter. In the yard Hannah's two boys are rolling and giggling with tiny dogs clambering all over them. These seven survivors of a recent litter of 11 are gambolling around like, well, like puppies. Two rush over to me and attack my shoe laces, another chews a plastic bottle.

    Hannah emerges from the house, her long legs slim in jeans. She seems weary after yet another long morning. Today, she has been checking the sheep in the in-byes, the lower fields around the farm house. And she has been keeping an eye on the lambs and ewes with problems that are in the barns. Another two barns are full of cows that are well into calving.

    We pop in to the kitchen to say hello to her mum and deliver the cake we cooked for them. The kitchen, as ever, is a production unit, it’s like the engine room of the farm: food is cooking on the AGA, there’s washing hanging to dry, and the table is set ready for the lunch that has been pushed beyond 2 o'clock by the needs of lambs and ewes.

    Rob and I leave Hannah to eat. We walk through the yard, pleased to see that ‘Piddling Pete’, the dog that once cocked his leg against Rob’s shoes, is secure behind a barn door, and we walk up the lane to the in-byes. It's very cold and I quickly regret leaving my hat and gloves in the car.

    The ewes like to keep a distance so Rob puts the long lens on his Nikon. The Herdwick lambs are black; the Swaledale lambs are white, with black patches on their faces. Most huddle near their mothers, but there are a couple of lambs settled in the long grasses, staying out of the wind.

    We don’t stay too long. The bitter wind is uninviting. You can’t see this in pictures – the soft light looks almost balmy, but being here (especially without a hat) is unpleasantly cold. And though the grass looks green, there hasn’t been enough warm weather for it to grow and it’s lacking the nutrients the sheep need. Most farmers have had to give their sheep supplementary feed for longer than usual and, because last year’s wet summer reduced the output of sileage, most have had to buy in extra feed, at inflated prices.

    Back at the yard we catch up with Steven, Hannah’s partner, who comes out on a quad bike. His son is straddling the seat in front of him, his facing beaming with the thrill of the ride and the simple carefree delight of childhood. It has been tough, Steven tells us, although he says so with a smile - typical for a farmer who has to deal with challenges on a daily basis and still move forward. The lambs and ewes on the farm are doing ok, but the weather has been harsh - two nights ago it started snowing at seven in the evening so he and Hannah had to go out and bring sheep and lambs into the barns. They were out in the snow until midnight. Another day Steven ended up knee-deep in water, dragging two ewes out of the fast flowing river. Earlier this month, when the heavy snows struck, they had to trudge through thigh-high drifts. Everyone is eagerly waiting for some warmth.

    Hannah joins us in the yard, dressed in her working clothes: a green waterproof coat, green waterproof trousers, wellies, and a green hat pulled on to keep out weather and mess, and she is carrying a jug and a feeding tube. She and looks better for some food, and I say as much. She answers, “oh yes they've nearly all eaten.” I say no, not the lambs, I mean you! And she smiles, and agrees. She prizes open the high green doors of the barn and takes me in to see some of the lambs, who are with their mothers in pens lined with straw. Some are getting too much milk; some are premature; some need extra feeding; one, at the far end, is dead. The puppies follow us in and bounce fearlessly over to their pens, where they receive a forceful bash from a protective ewe. They don’t seem to understand the danger and eventually we have to pick them up and take them out of the barn, closing the doors behind us.

    Hannah is simply carrying on with the jobs of early Spring. She has been up and out with the livestock from dawn till dusk, or beyond, every day, tending the sheep in the fields and in the barns, and watching the cows in the shed; she has had to skin dead lambs, and use coats on live lambs to give them a chance of being mothered; she has fixed harnesses to sheep with prolapses; tended calves; and at the same time mothered her own children. It seems relentless but despite the occasional shrug, she enjoys being in touch with the animals and making the farm work. You just get on with it, is her view.

    As for us? Unlike Hannah, whose list of high priority tasks is unending, we can leave the farmyard, and head back home. When we next catch up with her, maybe at the Keswick Tup Fair, we will find out how all the lambs are doing and, I hope, we’ll feel a little more warmth in the air.


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