Leading the flock
- Credit: Nick Butcher
It may be an exhausting and anxious time, but the spring lambing season never ceases to delight farmer and shepherdess Gail Sprake.
Nothing signifies the start of spring more perfectly than the sight of lambs across the county. For Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association (RNAA) Fellow, Gail Sprake, who farms on the Norfolk/Suffolk border near Halesworth, this is the most joyous time of the year as she becomes the proud shepherdess to around 70 lambs born between January and mid-February.
“Spring is synonymous with lambs, and this year at Meens Farm we began indoor lambing our Southdown flock on January 4. We prefer to lamb indoors so we have well-grown lambs for the start of the show season. This year we have had roughly 50/50 twins and single lambs so have just under 70 new additions to the farm.
“March can be a fickle month in terms of weather; some years it can be glorious while others are knee-deep in snow, so we carefully acclimatise the lambs by bringing them out into the fields during the day, weather permitting, and then take them back indoors for the evening just until we have a better feel for what this year’s spring will be like.”
Gail and her husband Michael started their flock by purchasing four Southdown sheep as experimental lawn-mowers! Thirty years on, their 100-strong flock vies with rare breed cattle and 600 acres of mixed arable land for their attention. Another reason for lambing early, is that Gail knows she will have help at hand from Michael in January and February while the rest of the farm is relatively quiet.
“Lambing can be an anxious time and I always think it’s a little like harvesting, you want to have the healthiest, most perfect lambs but just as with a harvest each year varies and it’s almost impossible to tell what the outcome will be. After our first few years of lambing we thought we knew everything but nature always knows best and has taught us there is no room for complacency.”
Until 2007 Gail’s Southdown sheep featured on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) Watch List and have recently been joined on the farm by four Devon Closewool sheep – the only collection in East Anglia and also listed as rare with the RBST. The Devon Closewools on the farm will lamb later in this month for the first time.
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Gail embodies everything to do with being a modern-day shepherd. Not only does she tend her flock but she also “shepherds” those keen to gain a greater understanding of farming life with particular emphasis on rare breeds. As chairman of the RBST board of trustees, Gail is keen to impress that rare breeds like her Devon Closewool and Southdown sheep have a commercial place in mainstream agriculture.
“Before my role on the farm took off I taught modern foreign languages, which is maybe one of the reasons I am so keen to pass on my knowledge and experience in terms of farming. The Royal Norfolk Show is the perfect opportunity to provide first-hand experience of farming rare breeds and is something I have been keenly involved with for many years.
“Showing initially began as a bit of fun when my two daughters Phillippa (30) and Ellie (25) started exhibiting some of the flock when they were much younger. My involvement has blossomed over the years and last year I was proud to be made a Life Fellow of the RNAA for my continued contribution. The careers of both my daughters have been influenced by farming so I know that my own enthusiasm is infectious and if I can spread this passion further afield then I hope to be able to do so.
“Spring is a very special time of year and as a shepherdess walking around my yard listening to the sheep interacting with their newborn lambs I know I will forever be in awe of Mother Nature.”