Adam Henson: A magical month
If you want new born lambs on April 1, you need to put the males to the females with a bang on fireworks night!
April is a magical month on the farm. It's lambing time when the miracle of new birth and motherhood occupies our minds and most of our time. For the last few weeks we’ve been flat out looking after our 750 ewes and we have someone on duty 24 hours a day caring for them, so it's an incredibly busy time.
The rams went to the ewes in the autumn and there’s an old saying that if you want new born lambs on April 1, you need to put the males to the females with a bang on fireworks night! Sheep are seasonal animals so whether you're in Taunton, Tadcaster or Temple Guiting, the timing is more or less the same; breeding in the autumn and giving birth in the spring when the grass begins to grow.
Our region even gets its name from the livestock. A cot is the old word for a sheep enclosure, so the Cotswolds are sheep enclosures on the rolling hills. Over the centuries local shepherds would have lambed most of their sheep out in the fields and the tradition continues in places further south like Somerset.
Mind you, the weather in the South West is slightly warmer than it is 1,000 feet up on the top of the Cotswolds. Here modern methods of animal husbandry have led to big lambing barns where we house our sheep in time for them to give birth. It’s also a great deal easier for the Farm Park visitors because we lamb in front of the public and I’m not sure too many of them would want to go traipsing across the fields looking for a pregnant ewe.
We’ve got some real stars of the sheep world on the farm including Gloucestershire’s county breed, the Cotswold. They’re known as Cotswold lions because of the long, lustrous ringlets which fall over their ears and eyes like a mane. It really is beautiful wool. We've also got Kerry Hills which originate from the English/Welsh borderlands and are a sight to behold. They’re white with black patches around the nose, eyes, ears and knees. When you get a flock of 15 or 20 they look stunning.
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One of my newest breeds on the farm is the White Face Dartmoor. They’re hardy animals, wonderful mothers and they have long, strong wool. In fact, if you asked a child to draw a picture of a sheep, they'd come up with a dumpy white, woolly animal with lots of ringlets, which is exactly what a White Face Dartmoor looks like.
Then there are the Norfolk Horns. They’re one of England’s oldest breeds with beautiful black faces and strong horns. Forty years ago the Norfolk Horn came about as close to extinction as you can possibly get with just a handful of seriously inbred rams and ewes in existence. But thanks to my dad, Joe, and a small band of other enthusiasts, they were crossed with Suffolks so that now they’ve been bred back to produce almost pure Norfolk Horns. It’s quite a story of survival.
While birthing is going on at home, I’m also helping out on a sheep farm hundreds of miles away thanks to the new series of Lambing Live on BBC Two. The programme was first suggested to me a couple of years ago by a television producer who said they’d been fascinated by a short film I’d made about lambing for Countryfile.
They told me they were thinking of putting together five hour-long shows about ewes and lambing to run on consecutive nights. Now I’m a country boy who loves sheep and I've been involved in lambing all my life, but even I wasn’t sure I'd want to watch it for five nights in a row. How wrong I was.
Viewers tuned in to the first series in their droves, we received hundreds of letters, texts and emails while farmers all over the country told me they loved it. From the start I was very keen not to give the sheep industry a chocolate-box image. I didn't want to simply show lambs dancing in the daffodils. After all, something like 10 percent of lambs die during or shortly after birth.
The new series takes me and Kate Humble to harsh and remote farmland at Kirkby Stephen near Carlisle. Our hosts are the Marston family who have a Swaledale flock on the hills where much of the lambing takes place in the open. So every day is a life or death drama. How will Kate and I get on? How many newborns will survive? You’ll just have to watch to find out.