The third in a series of four lambing updates from our very own Donald Morrison, crofter and Changeworker in the village of Cross on Lewis. Donald’s updates started 15 March – see first and second posts – and end 30 April.

20 April 2012

Well, we're three-quarters of the way through lambing and all has gone reasonably well. Casualties have so far been minimal.  I have lost two lambs, both Texel; the first was born with its rear legs first and had to be assisted. Unfortunately this lamb did not survive. 

We have a system, which some of you might strange but I think actually fits in very well with the Changeworks ethos. Each morning, the local Gaelic radio station BBC Radio nan Gàidheal gives out details of crofters who are giving away new-born lambs. This can be for a variety of reasons: the ewe may not have milk for it or may even have died and it may be better for the lamb to be adopted. I lost this lamb in the late afternoon last Thursday but had heard on the morning radio of a crofter in a village some forty miles away who was offering two Blackface lambs.

For people in some areas of Lewis, lambing this year has been very difficult which has been attributed to contaminated silage. This is a very contentious topic currently because the finger is being pointed at the droppings of the wild goose population. Being at the very north-west point of the UK we tend to be the first landfall for many species of birds that have crossed from Greenland or Iceland.

So, having called the gentleman involved about the lamb, I set off with my son Alasdair to collect the lamb late on Thursday evening.  After arriving and having the obligatory (!) tea and scones we set off home with a small, slightly bemused but very lively lamb.

The successful adoption of a lamb to a ewe is based on convincing the ewe that this really is her lamb.  I first of all milked the ewe and fed the lamb from a bottle.  Once the milk passes through the lamb it begins to acquire the smell that the ewe is expecting. I then put the lamb in a pen in the barn and the ewe in the paddock outside so that she could hear the lamb crying.

In the morning (be warned some of you may find this distressing), I skinned the dead lamb and put the skin onto the blackface lamb and then introduced the two together. The ewe’s initial reaction was to welcome the lamb but on a closer inspection by her she obviously had her doubts and would butt the lamb or kick it if it tried to suckle. Next step was to tie the ewe’s head tightly so that she had minimal movement and distract her, either with food or even just talking to her while the lamb tried to suckle.
This can be very time-consuming and I must have spent at least four or five hours on Friday in the pen with them. By Friday evening I felt confident enough to release the ewe permanently from the standing position she was in, lengthen the rope so that she could move easily but not so long that the lamb couldn’t get out of her reach in case of trouble overnight. 

On Saturday morning it was obvious that the adoption was going to be a success. The lamb was suckling with no objection and so the skin could come off. Last test was borrowing the neighbour’s collie and introducing him into the pen. The ewe immediately called the lamb to her and stamped her feet very aggressively at the dog – a sure sign she viewed the lamb as her own.  In this case it only took a couple of days but on occasions it can be a very long and time-consuming process, but ultimately very rewarding, not only for the crofter but also for both the ewe and lamb.   

The second lamb lost was the second of a set of twins which breached. By the time we got to her and got the lamb out it was dead.

I’ve heard some folk say that sheep are stupid, dumb animals but there is no doubt in my mind that the expressions of grief and sorrow they express if they lose a lamb are genuine. 

Fortunately, in this case, the ewe had a surviving lamb to occupy her. Last year, one of my older ewe’s lost a lamb at about three weeks old for no apparent reason – one minute it had been running about in front of our kitchen window and the next minute it had just lain down and died. That ewe would return to the spot the lamb died two or three times a day for the next couple of weeks and call for her lamb. It would drive us daft as her call was both very loud and, to my human ear, also possessed a certain amount of distress.

The different sizes and shapes and colours of the various breeds never cease to amaze me – they are after all just sheep.



In Donald’s final update: last arrivals, ‘Edinburgh curry effect’, a cure mix for bloat, the gender split and getting ready for market…