The Lambing Life

As a veterinary student attending Glasgow University, we are required to complete at least two weeks of lambing in the first two years of our program.  In the United Kingdom, sheep dot the hillside and are a major form of livestock.

My experience with lambing took place in Wales, at a farm outside of a small town called Knighton with the lovely Lewis family.  I had spent countless hours preparing myself for my experience: buying waterproofs, coveralls, wellies, planning the train ride, watching lambing videos for all situations, familiarizing myself with sheep breeds, and much more.  My preparation had me excited for the experience ahead but little did I know that I would love it as much as I did.

The Lewis family farm was spread out the Welsh countryside, in the most picturesque way.  Two family homes (one for the grandparents and one for the farmer, his wife and children) are nestled into the hillside, overlooking the spring that runs through the property.  The infamous sheep shed is a two minute casual stroll away and within earshot of the nearly 1000 bleeting ewes and lambs (don't be fooled, there was more than 1000 ewes at their giant farm... think 2500+ ewes (thankfully not all of them lamb at the same time), 300+ beef cattle, 10 resident chickens and 3 dogs).  

I won't drown you in the details of what I did everyday for two weeks but I will give you the shortish version.  
My day began at the shed at 7-7:30 in the morning.  I would do a quick run around the shed to familiarize myself with who was lambing, who had already lambed, and who was sickly.  We would then pen everything that had a lamb in a private pen so that their wee ones would not be stolen by the other overly motherly ewes or trampled and then dip the navels of the lambs and give then an anti-scour oral liquid. 

Once we had a handle on the madness that would begin every morning, we would have to go around and feed the pregnant sheep.  The large pens housing the ewes yet to lamb would all get fresh hay and cake (concentrated pellet formula) and the individual pens would get a separate allotment of cake, water and hay.  This was probably my least favourite part of the day and for no reason other than I realized how stupid sheep really are. 
Let's be honest for a moment.  Everyone loves cake.  I love cake, you love cake, dogs love cake (even though they shouldn't even know what cake is) and the pellets called cake drive sheep wild.  Sheep will usually run away from you even if you look at them but if you rustle the bucket with cake in it, then you just became a ewe's best friend.  Better yet, the sheep have been conditioned to get excited whenever they hear a quad because the quad delivers the cake.  As a result, every time there was the sound of a quad, no matter how distant it was, the bleeting of sheep was so loud, you had to scream at the person next to you for them to hear you.... forget yelling across the shed to get your point across.  This love of cake was also likely the cause of my current knee issues... In the evening, only the private pens get cake but it requires an individual to walk through the throng of ewes to get to the pens and the ewes yet to lamb are hell-bent on getting to the cake and will stop at nothing to get there, even if it means running with their thick skulls through knees.  I obviously never learned to dodge their attack or else I would not have this issue.  
Fun fact (and also a side note to any Lewis family members possibly reading this):  My knees are substantially better.  I still have a limp, but it gives me serious street credit and I like that.  Also not having ewes constantly ramming you knee sideways works wonders on the healing.  And drugs.  Thank you NHS for the free anti-inflammatories and pain medication.

Back on track now.  You feed the ewes and then you bottle feed all the orphan lambs and the lambs that have mom's that do not produce enough or any milk.  Then it is usually time for break which means cake (for humans) and other delicious baked goods and of course, tea.  Post stuffing of the face, you go back to the shed, and usually lime (a disinfectant and moisture absorbent) and litter all the individual and large pens, lamb and pen some more ewes, ring tails and castrate the lambs, and number off the ones ready to go to the field.  Then it is time for lunch and baked goods or dinner and dessert, always with tea and then back to the shed.  Then you do more of the same from earlier in the morning but also find time to bottle feed everything after lunch and then again before going home at the end of the day while also giving out cake, hay and water to everything again and then you go back for dinner or lunch (whichever you did not have earlier).  Depending on how many people were in the shed, how many ewes delivered earlier in the day, and how many skinny babies were kicking around in the shed, we would sometimes go back to lamb some more and bottle feed and finish anything we didn't finish before calling it a night anytime between 6pm and midnight.  

Now this was just the day to day basics, but toss in there fixing uterine and rectal prolapses, difficult deliveries, fostering tiddling (orphans), giving injections, running between the shed and the house with the heating lamp and milk supply, milking ewes, building pens, moving ewes around, and much more.  And that was only in the sheep shed... not to mention that our wonderful farmer was working with his cattle, visiting the flocks still in the hills that had yet to lamb or were lambing in the hills and managing everything else going on at the farm.  

Side note- I am convinced the farmer has a twin that I kept seeing because I still do not understand how one person can do so much in a day

I can honestly say I was exhausted and I didn't even scratch the surface of the lambing life.  No matter how exhausted I was though, every minute I spent on that farm was fantastic.  I was extremely fortunate to have stumbled across the Lewis family because they welcomed me into their home(s) with open arms, fed me (far too much... not that I am complaining), and gave me the best experience I could have asked for and tolerated me in my crippled condition.  I compared notes with my fellow students and I am convinced I was at the best place in the United Kingdom, so excuse my while I do a little happy dance!

If you had asked me before I went lambing if I would do it again nest year, the answer would have been yes because I was convinced I would love it.  If you asked me now, the answer would be HELL YES!  Why?  Let me recap some of my fond memories.

I had an exceptional family.  I felt like an actual member of the family which was extremely comforting.  I cannot imagine living with a bunch of people who I did not know, not to mention did not like but instead I had a family that made me feel like I was one of their own.

I had the best experience I could have asked for.  It was picturesque, busy, fun, and just all around awesome.  When I went searching for a placement, I was convinced I wanted to go to a small farm with only a couple hundred ewes and I came across this one and went because even through email, the placement sounded wonderful and my host was very receptive and welcoming.  The sheer number of ewes meant there was always something to do and that every experience lambing was new and interesting.  

Fun fact- I had my hand in so many uteruses/uteri (what is the plural of uterus?!) that my fingers were hardly every cold and if they were cold, there was usually a ewe that needed some magic fingers all up in there.  That was pretty descriptive.... so here is another tidbit that may have too much information... I was usually up to my elbow or further with one hand, and sometimes, had both hands in there.  Ouchie.

I lambed big babies and small babies, one/two/three/four babies, black/speckled/white babies, wooly and bald babies, front feet, back feet, one leg, two leg, three leg, four leg, two heads, tail first, head against sternum, floppy heads, only head, swollen heads, ossified fetlocks, premature babies, malformed babies, rotten and/or dead (sadly) babies, and sick and healthy babies. I used one hand, two hands, ropes, lubricant, and my feet against the ewe for leverage when pulling just was not good enough.  I laughed when the lambs that were born were the size of medium breed dog or when they looked more like a dog or rabbit breed than a sheep.  I cried when I felt a lamb in the womb suckle my desperate hands for the last time as he drowned in his own mother, when my compressions, resuscitation and desperate efforts to keep a lamb breathing failed and I felt their wee heart beat for the last time, when I finally was able to foster a tiddling off after four failed attempts and two warm baths (to get the afterbirth of the other ewes off) and when I sat next to a ewe who had been torn so badly she needed to be shot in favour of maintaining welfare and not letting her suffer.  I felt like a proud mother every time I successfully fostered a lamb onto another mother or just when a ewe would start cleaning her baby right after they were born.  I hated the ewes that rejected their own babies or when they crushed their lambs in the middle of the night.  I was frustrated whenever a ewe would not follow their lambs when I needed to move them or when I came and found a cold and poorly lamb in the morning.  I was desperate every time I saw a hung head, triplet or small baby because I didn't want to lose them and whenever I tried was treating a ewe with calcium deficiency because far too often they just did not make it.  I fixed more uterine prolapses than I can count including an entire uterus that turned completely inside out.  My heart broke whenever we had a malformed lamb and my heart melted every time a lamb took their first steps, bleeted for their mom the first time, and when the lambs would bounce and skip around when they were let out of their pens.  I had several favourite lambs, especially our "puppy" who would sneak out of his pen and follow us around the shed and bleet for the bottle and if paid any attention, he would jump up on you and suckle your chin, ears and nose until he finally realize he should go back and see his mother for milk.  I did and saw so much and could not get enough of it.  

I think I could talk, text and write about my experiences for hours, maybe even days.  I do not have enough good things to say about the experience!

To the Lewis family, thank you for everything.  You were exceptional.  You have a fantastic facility and have an appreciation for your animals like I have never seen in any other farmers and I appreciated your compassion for your animals more than you will ever know.  Your farm is beautiful and makes all others that I have seen pale in comparison, and you all were more than I could have ever asked for.  

To the students that will be lambing or are interested in lambing, you will not regret the opportunity and if presented with the chance, GO!  You work your buns off, you laugh and (maybe) cry, but it is rewarding, you will experience first hand how difficult it really is and and you get a teaser of what it is like to live a day as a farmer.  

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