LAMBING on better, lower lying farms is now well advanced, while that in our hills is about to get under way.
Those who were lambing in March had to contend with some dreadful weather, particularly around Easter, and sadly thousands of lambs perished from hypothermia. The tiny bodies of lambs with their long legs, ears and tail have a large surface area in relation to their low body mass and soon cool down in cold, wet weather.
Weak lambs also suffer at the jaws, beaks and claws of a host of predators. While losses to renegade foxes and sea eagles regularly make headline News, often as not they have merely taken lambs that had already died to feed their young. Such incidents, with incriminating remains of carrion in dens and nests are merely lame excuses for bad shepherding.
The biggest losses of lambs at lambing time are caused by carrion crows, or corbies as we call them, and ravens. They mob healthy young lambs as well as weak ones, and peck out their eyes and tongues, or pull out their intestines through their navels or other orifices with their cruel beaks. Often as not, those lambs that are found alive after such an attack have to be put down.
It’s reckoned that in a normal year about 15 per cent of all lamb foetuses perish for a variety of reasons, but as I said losses have been much higher on many farms this year. Provided you have done your best, such things are best forgotten and put behind you.
Fortunately the weather has calmed down recently and those in the hills are hoping for fine weather for their lambing – and it looks like they will need it. There have been well-publicised heavy losses in hill flocks as a result of the “Beast from the East” smothering ewes under deep snow drifts.
Other ewes, that have become very thin and weak, have drowned while attempting to cross burns and hill ditches.
On top of that, hill sheep had to contend with atrocious, wet weather in the autumn, that led to many of them being barren this year. I have heard reports of some very disappointing ultrasound scans of pregnant ewes that revealed they are carrying a lot less lambs this year.
Last year’s dreadful autumn has been followed by a harsh winter with prolonged snow cover that has prevented hill flocks from accessing adequate grazing. The end result is that there are a lot of lean hill sheep desperately in need of good weather to get grass growing again so they can rebuild their body reserves.
Lean, hungry ewes often lamb with little or no milk for their lambs that soon perish. Others simply abandon their lambs. Bearing these factors in mind, there is a real risk of a disastrous lambing in the hills if the weather turns nasty again.
It’s not just hill sheep that have become weak with the harsh winter, as thousands of red deer in the Highlands are in a similar state. Their numbers have increased in recent years to such levels that many, like me, have been predicting a welfare crisis should they have to cope with a harsh winter. Indeed, there have been calls for a rigorous cull to reduce the number of deer to more sustainable levels. That hasn’t happened and there is now a real risk that Mother Nature will implement her own cull.
With so many dead ewes, lambs and deer about predators are in line for plenty to eat, but many have already wintered well on an abundance of short-tailed voles Locally. They are common throughout Britain and periodically, as with this winter, there are plagues of them. It’s one of nature’s mysteries, but from time to time their numbers dramatically increase over one, two, or three years. Owls and birds of prey like buzzards, hen harriers and sparrow hawks, as well as foxes, stoats and weasels all feed on voles and thrive when they are plentiful. So well-fed foxes in my area are unlikely to bother taking healthy lambs this year.
That’s just as well, as all hill shepherds have enough problems.
Of course, it’s not just shepherds that work long hard hours at this time of year. Spare a thought for his faithful sheepdogs that accompany him in all weathers. Indeed, it is impossible to lamb hill sheep without a dog.
They help catch ewes in need of assistance with lambing, or those that have lost a lamb and need to be taken to pens to have an orphan one fostered on.
Source : HeraldScotland