• 8 Counting Sheep

    The sound of a couple of hundred sheep echoing around the barn drew us to the action. Inside, a woman dressed head to toe in waterproofs sat on an old car seat, straddling a large blue plastic box. She looked intently into the box while to her right sheep passed in and out of a metal cage. Her two helpers operated the cage, so that once a sheep was in, it couldn’t get out, and were ready with cans of spray paint.

    One. One. One. Two. One. Two. Geld. Two. One. One. One. Geld. One. Two. A new way of counting sheep. We meet the scanner, Lesley, and discover that the blonde woman standing behind her, moving the lever on the cage every minute or so, is her daughter. Lesley has the ultrasound head piece in her right hand and an orange plastic glove pulled all the way up to her elbow. She reaches below each ewe to press the metal head to its belly. Bright blue shapes appear on her screen against a black background, showing whether there is one lamb inside, if the ewe is carrying twins, or is geld (an empty womb). A ewe carrying one lamb is let out unmarked. A mother of twins is marked with red spray paint, and a geld gets a spray of orange. Liz is in charge of the spray paint and smiles as she makes sure she chooses the right colour. In these temperatures, with the sun still not over the hill behind the barn, everyone’s hands are cold and the chill air seems to freeze thought, forcing redoubled effort to keep concentration.

    In the past, a farmer wouldn’t know how many of his ewes would have twins, or if some were carrying triplets; nor how many had not fallen pregnant. Scanning came into common usage in the mid 1980s – Lesley has been doing it since 1984 – and is now used by almost every farmer. It has transformed the way farmers care for their flock and supports successful lambing. Ewes carrying twins can be given more food and closer attention; gelds can be let onto fields with poorer grass; and a farmer can head into the lambing season with a better idea of what to expect.

    The operation is fast. Behind the scanning team, John Rowland, the farmer at Low Beckside, is working alongside Matt Bagley, who is the head of agriculture at Newton Rigg college. They’re gathering sheep into small clusters inside the metal pens, and directing them into single file so they can be cajoled, or forcefully pushed if they’re very reluctant, into the scanning bay. It’s hands on, and we all do a bit of pushing from behind, or grab a horn from time to time to keep the sheep moving forward. The sheep are mostly Swaledales, with a few Cheviots or crosses.

    John and Matt have gentle banter with frequent chuckles. I join in the chat and occasionally have a chance to talk to the women, when each batch of sheep is finished and the next is being herded in, and there’s a let up of concentration. ‘I scanned my friend once!’ says Lesley. ‘Discovered she was having twins and she didn’t know!’ John pipes up: ‘Did she have to get in the cage?’ ‘No, she was on the kitchen table – oh we had a laugh that day.’

    My feet get colder and colder as the minutes draw on, but the rest of me is warm and it’s a friendly event. Matt tries to avoid putting one of the sheep through and I ask why. It’s a male. But then, with a grin, he and John decide to put it in anyway and see if Lesley will notice. She’s so focused on the machine, her arm so practiced at placing the scanner beneath the sheep’s belly that she doesn’t – this one gets marked with orange as a geld, and we exchange smiles.

    At the end of the morning the machine comes out with the figures – total sheep scanned, numbers of singletons, twins and gelds. About 260 sheep have been scanned by 8.40am, just as the sunlight is creeping into the yard. We gravitate towards it and let it gradually warm up finger tips, noses, legs, and then head inside for a cup of warming tea, but not before telling Lesley that one of the gelds wasn’t quite what she thought.

    A week later, we get our second experience of scanning, in a very different setting. We’re at the Dickinson’s farm, Brockstones, set against the hill in the Kentmere valley, where boulders the size of sheds protrude through walls and bulge out of tufted grass where the land slopes steeply behind the barns. After a week of fine early-spring weather, the wind direction and the temperature have changed, and we pile on the layers to insulate us against a cold east wind, that races into collars and cuffs and whips up dry dirt, feeding dust into our eyes.

    We get to the yard where Stephen, Hannah Dickinson’s partner, is getting things ready. The sheep are waiting in the open air, and the scanners have just arrived and are unloading their bits and pieces. Robin Taylforth, who is doing the scanning, has a battered old chair and slips it behind his scanner, then covers the chair and the scanner with a large cage, and drapes that with a thick, blue tarpaulin. He’s out of sight and protected from the cold wind. Meanwhile, Stephen has gathered about 200 sheep into the pens, where a complex system of metal gates are used to keep different groups separate. There are Swaledales, Herdwicks and Rough Fell ewes, all of them are dabbed with an array of colours that are like quick-view passports: purple means they’ve been on the fell; blue, they’ve been tupped by a texel; orange, they’re from one field; red they’re from another ... I can’t keep track of this rainbow code.

    The scanning gets underway in a perfunctory and very quick fashion. Stephen pushes the ewes in towards the cage one at a time, where they’re held fast so Robin can place the scanner head beneath their belly and get a clear reading. He’s assisted by a young woman who has spray cans at the ready: yellow for twins, orange for geld. With a rapid turnaround, one ewe after another enteres the cage, peers at us from the opening at the front, bleats, and then scrambles out when the metal gates open. Behind Stephen, another farmer, Alan, whose face wears the treads of years on the fells, keeps the ewes pressing on towards the scanning cage. Behind him, Stephen’s son manages a larger group, opening and closing gates to ensure there’s no mix up.

    Hannah arrives with the next batch of sheep, maybe another hundred, and a drawn face. She has a terrible cold but, as Stephen says when I had asked if she was staying in, ‘she’s needed here’. It’s a tough job, constantly moving sheep, keeping them in the right place, reprimanding the dogs when they run in the wrong direction, helping the scanners get their job done. There are around 800 to scan in total. Around 200 fit in the yard at one time, and when these are done and let out, Hannah drives the next batch in – she’s walking and using the quad bike to get between the yard and the fields where the sheep are ‘handy’. Her dad, Ivan, helps her. It’s non-stop. When her mum, Margaret, appears with coffee and an old icecream tup filled with crackers and cheese, we break for a snack and drink.

    Robin reflects on what’s going on, and politely answers my questions (which must seem pretty ignorant ... I am still new to this). He says that generally, following on from last year’s bad weather (it rained all summer – the sheep were wet for months and the grass quality was poor), generally the numbers of lambs are down. We’re only part way in to Hannah’s ewes, so he couldn’t say how her results were looking. One ewe he found had only recently become pregnant – probably tupped after Christmas – and he marks that with a red L on the side for ‘late’. The lamb won’t come until around June – two months after most of the others. This ewe is best put back on the fell with the gelds and the hoggs, he explains, because if it’s kept low you’ll be waiting for it to lamb and it won’t happen.

    After coffee, it’s back to work. When we were at Low Beckside I could get in close, help to move the sheep along, and take a look at the scanning images – but here I have to keep a distance. I spend most of my time leaning on a gate or fence, shielded from the wind by my hat, waterproof trousers and coat, watching what’ happening or talking to Ivan or Hannah in between sheep runs. Rob is balancing precariously on walls and fences to get the shots he needs, but it’s tough conditions.

    We are joined today by Stephen Miller, who works for the Wordsworth Trust where the Land Keepers exhibition will be launched in February 2014. It’s the first time he has joined us on a farm, and his first time standing beside 300-400 sheep. He braces himself against the chill and takes it all in.


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