I was a bit short of money in February 2019, so pretty much on a whim, I decided to go a-lambing for 9 weeks. Months later, with those chilly spring nights, lashing hail, chronic sleep deprivation and homesickness well behind me, I feel I can write about it with warmth!
I was Head Shepherd at Rosewood Farm for 8yrs, but that was a very specific proposition. It was a small flock of less than 200 animals, a rare breed (or as near as dammit) and I was responsible for everything from conception of the lambs to the moment the meat was posted off to its end user. That meant I split my time between real-live shepherding and online marketing and butchery etc. I also facilitated organic tanning of the sheepskins and the shearing, spinning and wool sales.
I’m not complaining; I enjoyed that level of responsibility and control and the difficulties of farming the Ings. But. I grew up in the Pennines, on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, just under the Lakes. That was sheep country in a way that the Ings isn’t (the Ings are more about cows). It’s the country of drystone walls and thousands of woolly backsides. A lot of it’s really windswept and inhospitable…and I like that. Something about that type of landscape feeds my soul.
I grew up looking (longingly, because I actually lived in a town, then a village) at bleak fells and the blackfaced breeds like Lonks, Dalesbreds, Rough Fells and Swaledales. To me, they ARE sheep and that IS sheep farming. Heaven looks like the Dales. I’ve perhaps made my point by now!
I couldn’t have that in the Ings – most of these breeds have horns, which the abundant flies down in the wet marshes go after and pick open at the base: misery for the sheep. And besides, I might get the sheep, but I wouldn’t have the fells and drystone walls! So when a tweet popped up from a farmer local to my home Pennine village looking for a lamber for a flock of mule sheep, I went for it.
I was a bit daunted – it involved 3000 ewes. I hadn’t dealt with more than 300 at once. The night before I drove back to Lancashire I felt sick with nerves. I knew how much money was at stake here if I screwed up. Those 6000 potential lambs were the farmers sole crop and for 50% of the lambing season (nights) the success of it was down to me. I had direct experience of the knife-edge of farming profits and desperately didn’t want to be the source of someone else’s misery. My brain told me I was a charlatan, that I didn’t actually know anything about sheep; I’d forgotten it all in the year I’d been out of the business! I asked myself what the hell I was doing.
I was told at this point that “you will feel now like you don’t know anything about sheep, but in five weeks you won’t know anything but!” and that was so true. There’s no doubt about it, it’s a grind. 12hr night shifts, every single day, doing the same thing – watching sheep, and diving in if needed. In total I did 55 shifts, almost back to back. It got to the point that when I drove away from the lambing sheds, my brain simulated a backing track of bleating to replace the real thing. In Lancashire, with 3000 ewes and their offspring based all around, at feeding time in the morning the sound rang around the valley and drowned out everything else – surreal, and brilliant for a sheep lover.
I adored working in the landscape of my youth, gaining a whole new perspective of it, and getting to stay in a 17th Century cottage only added to the experience. When the head shepherd came to relieve me in the morning, I could go on a little walk to clear my mind of sheeplambssheeplambssheeplambs and I found ruined cottages to ponder over, and saw dawn over the fells. Later on in the contract the weather went from galeforce winds and driving rain to pleasant sunny mornings and I enjoyed riding out to take the lambs to pasture, given a guided tour of all the old ruined cow byres from a dairy industry long-gone.
(the window in my cottage ❤ )
It was peculiar to be asked ‘are you enjoying it?’ by almost everyone I encountered. I have a real problem replying inaccurately and thoughtlessly to questions, so although they probably asked purely out of politeness, I would attempt to answer truthfully. Yes, I was enjoying myself, in a horrific sort of way. I was tired, often wet and frozen, absolutely battered physically and in pain much of the time. How could I possibly describe this as ‘enjoyment’?
There was heartache too. The lambs you can’t do anything to help. The terrible cases where lambing goes wrong – I had two I just couldn’t fix, two giant lambs too big for their mothers, really. One was quite simply crushed by its mother in the birthing effort and although I tried to revive it every way I knew how, even kiss of life; it didn’t survive. The worst was one who’s mother sat up just as I was pulling and snapped the leg of the lamb. The lamb lived, I splinted the leg, but it seemed he was more crushed internally due to his size so the leg was the last of his problems and he didn’t make 24hrs either.
There were far more successes though; I lose count of the lambs I certainly saved from doom. One I named ‘Donkey’; he was enormous and a real struggle to birth for me and his mum. This time kiss of life worked and he’s in the picture with me here. That was when I felt proud and grateful for all my years of experience, my sure hands and firm, decisive nature. You can’t prat around at critical moments like that deliberating! It’s raw and it’s real – the only thing that matters is the life of the sheep concerned and you are only there to ensure that.
While in Lancashire, I spotted an advert for a job in Shetland and I was ‘enjoying myself’ so much I applied and got the job. Now this truly was a dream come true because I got to combine my love of sheep with that of the Scottish islands (again…). For two DAYS I journeyed North from York to that group of islands halfway to Norway – the most Northerly point of Scotland. As soon as I hit South Shetland I fell in love. If I didn’t have some rather large commitments (a daughter!) on the mainland, I would not have come back.
There’s a tangible sense of being far away on Shetland. It’s not lawless of course, but there’s a relaxed feel, like you are beyond the reach of the troubles of the mainland, and there’s an emphasis on getting a working landscape, so business and building are encouraged rather than strangled as it feels sometimes in Yorkshire. I encountered a love of gossip and parties, an acceptance of ‘characters’, some of the best knitwear in the world and all the museums and giftshops you could want to make you believe that you, too, can do lacework (ha!).
I felt like I was living in a dream. When everyone else wound down for the day, ate and slept, I ventured out into the evening and there I stayed in the quiet of the night until they came back out again with the dawn and waking ravens. Of course, it didn’t get truly dark, they lamb so late in Shetland it was the time of ‘the simmer dim’ and it was so strange to experience. At first, I took comfort from the steady blinking of the lighthouse. ‘Ah, I’m not the only soul in the world awake’, I thought. And then I remembered lighthouses aren’t manned anymore, and it really was just me in the half-light, with the sound of the pounding waves nearby.
In the daylight though, the nearby beach provided soulfood. I was battling pretty hard with emotions from my still-fairly-recent breakup with my husband, and being torn between love for the new places and experiences I was having with guilt for leaving my daughter. I felt dreadfully homesick, but for a place that didn’t exist anymore. I was enjoying Shetland, but wondering about afterwards – where did I belong? Sitting on that spectacular beach in the lee of the wind, finding the sun surprisingly warm when the gusting was taken away, I had what I rarely have at ‘home’: time to think, and heal, to come to terms with needing to find a new way of being.
It was particularly brutal for all the beauty though. The ravens, impressive birds that they are, took on a sinister feel as they flew out from the creepy ruined house they lived in at first proper light. They actively hunted lambs, working in groups to herd them away from their mothers and stab them to death before they knew what was going on. The weather was something else: it was snowing in May, with famously powerful winds making it so that I had quite literally seconds to get newborn lambs indoors into pens before they perished.
The worst weather naturally coincided with the busiest night lambing the farm had ever seen and the dream turned into a nightmare that night. I felt like I was on a ship in a storm – I have a terrified fascination with sailing and this was as near as I’ve got to the many documentaries I watch about sailors making their way through storms in tiny crafts! I was togged up so that every inch of me other than my eyes was swaddled with protection, but my eyes stung with the force of the hail. It was so violent it was a white-out in front of my stinging eyes and I struggled to decide which way was up, fighting against the force of the wind, scouring the floor of the lambing paddocks for the shapes of newborns, hunched against the horrendous conditions. But I am happy to report that one of my proudest achievements was not losing a SINGLE lamb that night on that island in that storm. (Thanks must go to my inexperienced but hardworking assistant Kasi if she is reading, as I couldn’t have done it without her, not a chance!)
I also broke my first bone. The ewes get kinda crazy on birth-hormones sometimes, and one got it into her head that the lamb I was taking indoors was hers (it wasn’t) and as I closed the gate on her to take the real mother into the shed with the baby in question, she burst into action and rammed my hand, trapping a finger between her head and the metal. The air turned blue, but I knew full well that unless I was airlifted out, absolutely nobody would have sympathy and there was never a thought of cancelling my shift! It was a finger on my right hand, and I found that the pressure of a ewe’s vagina was a no-go, so I had to learn how to lamb left handed! I couldn’t catch ewes one-handed however, so for the rest of the contract every time I caught a ewe I had to have a moment to shudder and swear afterwards with the pain before I could carry on!
So that was my lambing season, a real baptism of fire, a painful but glorious experience that helped me feel independence again after my marriage; thanks to the sheep, landscapes and farmers that healed my soul, a bit…