Clare was exactly what you’d expect a retired ward sister to be. Brisk, matter of fact and organised to a fault. Piercing grey eyes, steely hair tied in a bun topping her diminutive frame and a very firm, almost protruding chin. She turned up as our stand-in lambing helper one year when our student help let us down. I should have realised we were in for an interesting time when she refused to let me allow a poorly lamb to die.
‘It’s not nature taking its course,’ she glowered, ‘It’s a life and we must try and save it!’
I’d met her during the winter when she came to see me after one of my evening talks about the farm.
‘Will you teach me how to lamb?’ she pleaded, ‘It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.’
She seemed very keen but quite frankly I had tried to put her off. Lambing is very hard physical work, it requires enormous reserves of physical and emotional resilience, especially when things are going wrong and it is more about administration and tedious routine than clinical excitement. She arrived armed with her book on ‘Lambing Techniques’ and I think she was expecting more Casualty or Holby City than the relentlessness of the lambing shed.
And it is relentless; that’s what makes it so wearing – you can’t just walk away for a few hours – and you can be sure if you leave a helper on duty while you grab a meal or some sleep, they’ll be knocking on the door within 10 minutes asking for help. Big flocks can afford to pay properly qualified staff but we had to make do with unpaid, enthusiastic but amateur help.
Clare found the place unhygienic and I suppose it was compared to a labour suite in a hospital but by farming standards we ran a pretty tight ship. We had hot and cold water plumbed in, we had a fridge for drugs and milk and we sterilised everything with boiling water and bleach.
The main job of the helpers was to look after the routine things; keeping the hay racks full, checking and cleaning the water buckets in the pens and watching the ewes and new arrivals carefully to make sure everything was OK. Clare was good at this, indeed much better than the younger students who would get distracted by their ‘phones but she took it upon herself to fetch me for every single real or imagined problem which became both tiresome and time consuming.
‘I’m sure this lamb isn’t well, I’ve not seen it feed’, she called.
‘It’s asleep’, I muttered wearily for what seemed like the tenth time, ‘Just give it a prod.’
I know it’s better to be safe than sorry but when you’ve been up all night it can be hard to remember that.
To be fair she was very keen and helped me with one or two tough deliveries but she wasn’t strong enough to pull out the really difficult ones. I did what I did with the younger students and let her deliver lambs that would have been born naturally to build her confidence but she struggled with the muck and crudeness of it all. The other thing she struggled with was that ewes don’t lie still on a delivery table – they have to be caught and restrained before you can help them. She had some interesting ideas that included walking round the field with poorly lambs that were about to die just to ‘let them see some sunshine’. But she worked hard and did her best while she was with us.
I have to say though, I was pleased and relieved to see Alice arrive – she’d been before and had asked to come back. She ‘had a bit about her’ as they say around here and showed a real interest in what we were doing. We’ve kept in touch with her and she’s now a research scientist in human medicine having found farming science a bit pedestrian; but she was keen, bright and great fun to have around.
Our students were a mixed bag over the years – we had some good ones like Clive who had worked on large sheep farms and had lots of experience – he even took over from me one night with a difficult lambing. Clive had a sense of humour which is a great asset during lambing, he could also drive tractors and operate machinery and took a great deal of the load off me that year. Then there was Kelly, a smart undergraduate from my old University, Newcastle, who clearly had no intention of ever lambing another ewe after leaving us but wanted the experience and worked very hard while she was here. We had a tough time that year with a spate of lambs born dead and she coped admirably with some very unpleasant situations.
Sadly, our small scale meant that we rarely attracted people like Alice, Clive and Kelly; most of our students were young women who were wannabe vets, trying to build a CV prior to applying to Vet School. This meant that they were young (16-17) and needed a lot of support. We had one girl who arrived with her Auntie, she lasted three days and when I asked her what she’d learned she replied after some thought – that male sheep are called rams and female sheep are called ewes. We had another who was quite promising but her mother, from an urban non-farming background decided she wanted her home to help with her sister’s baby. She left after a few days, disappointing her college and leaving us needing to call in family reinforcements.
But our star student was Evie. She lived just up the road and was very keen from the start. She could handle all the sheep related work and because she came regularly, she knew the routine and how to keep the records. She became a very valuable and reliable helper over the years, with the sheep and the butchery and retailing (despite being a vegetarian) and she remains the only one of a succession of wannabe vets who actually made it into the profession.
We always instilled in the students that they need not work at night unless they were confident they could cope alone but Alice did try on one occasion. I woke in the early hours to see the light on in the barn and went to investigate – she was there on her own trying to deliver twins – in tears with frustration but trying to deal with one of the most difficult mal-presentations of all. This happens when both lambs come together and you end up with the head of one lamb and the legs of another. It takes years of practice to learn how to sort this tangle out – the lambs have to be pushed back inside the ewe and then you gently work your fingers along the neck of one lamb until you find it’s shoulder and leg and then do the same on the other side – you then have to deliver that lamb while holding the other one back or they both get jammed in the pelvis. It’s not like it was on James Herriot, it’s very difficult and requires patience, great care and a lot of endurance.
Back to Clare – she had arrived with her book of lambing techniques which I’d politely suggested she didn’t really need but I knew she didn’t believe me. One of the last ewes to lamb that year got into trouble – it was a very difficult one where the lamb’s head was back. These are very hard to deliver because you have to pull the head forward so it will fit through the pelvis but as soon as you let it go to pull the front legs the head slips back again. I’ve spent hours trying to correct this presentation and even though I’ve been shown how to use a so called ‘snare’ by the vet, I just can’t do it. The idea of the snare is to hook it over the lamb’s head, below the ears so that you can keep the head forwards, while you pull on the legs with the other hand. All this has to happen inside the ewe and it’s something that requires a lot of practice and skill.
This one was not going to plan – Clare wasn’t working that afternoon but had turned up with a friend ‘to watch.’ Her friend was one of our customers who we knew well and I explained to them during one of my increasingly frequent breaks for breath that this wasn’t going to end well. After about an hour, I was just about to call the vet when I was aware of a presence behind me. It was Clare with her book,
‘Don’t you think you should get a bale of straw and lift her back end up onto it like in this picture?’ she said brightly. I won’t tell you what I said, but we never saw Clare again….
Emily the vet came shortly afterwards and expertly delivered the lamb (with her snare) in about 5 minutes flat and all was well. I’ve often thought that vet colleges should teach vets to make these jobs look difficult. It’s always a bit disheartening to have struggled for an hour trying to deliver lambs and have the vet arrive to complete the job in a few minutes!
Lambing sheds are strange places – for 11 months of the year they are quiet, silent even, covered in dust and cobwebs with no hint of the dramas and life and death struggles to come. On good days they are places of hope and excitement and I never tired of seeing new life come into the world and the magic of tiny lambs finding the teat, mostly unaided, for their first feed. On bad days they become depressing places, we learned quickly not to leave piles of dead lambs around as many farmers do – it’s dispiriting for the helpers and a constant reminder of lost life and lost income. On these days we just pressed on, one job at a time, one lambing at a time in the knowledge that all these lives were dependent on us and we couldn’t give up or throw a tantrum. A good antidote was to walk round the fields of ewes and lambs in the evening – to watch the lambs having their ‘lamb races’ – always a reassuring sight on even the darkest days.
I don’t miss the bad days, the lack of sleep or the relentlessness of lambing but I do miss the excitement and the real pleasure of things going well. It is after all a sheep farmers harvest, a time when care and attention to detail can affect a business for 18 months to come so it’s important and at the same time nerve wracking but immensely satisfying when it works out well.
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