Monday, 18 January 2010

Keeping a few sheep - how hard can that be...?

The answer is not as straightforward as you think. If, like us to start with, you have the help of someone with getting on for 40 or 50 years experience doing the day-to-day stuff - well, it's not very hard. On the other hand, if you are doing it all yourself, well it's a bit different. Anyway...

It's August 2003; we've bought 3 Wiltshire Horn ewe lambs and they are nicely settled in with Judith and Chris's 3 Back Welsh Mountain ewes. They are located around a mile west from our end of terrace house, whilst 2 miles east from our house is our allotment plot, home to our 4 chickens.

On the basis that we were keeping the chickens till they croaked and 'cos we didn't expect to delve further into animal husbandry at the time they were given names: Emily, Sally, Carolyn and Rachel. The sheep, however, were bigger animals, not pets as such, so they were not named - they had numbers - we tagged our sheep No. 1 and No. 2.

Now, sheep largely stand around and graze, but you also need to trim their feet, worm them, give them initial vaccinations and subsequent boosters, trim the poo off their wool, watch out for fly-strike (more anon) and this is before they are in lamb. Our sheepy routine was largely dictated by our working lives - we visited the sheep at a weekend (some evenings too in summer) and did the necessary then, with Judith, our mentor, keeping an eye on them on a daily basis.

We'd chosen Wiltshire Horns as a breed because they have the rather peculiar habit of moulting their wool in late spring: no wool = no shearing (thus reducing costs). It also means that the chances of fly strike are reduced, so no flesh eating maggots burrowing their way into the sheep, mmmh, it's not pleasant. It also means that there is no, or at any rate far-less, dagging (cutting poo off their rear ends).

So, this was the test - could we hack it being part-time sheep-keepers-cum-allotmenteers? From now on all our weekends were spent shuttling between sheep and allotment. I was off to work at 07:10 in a morning, so mostly Louise went daily to check on the chickens before catching the train to work. I went up in the evenings and occasional mornings.

All was going well and in November 2004 we put the girls to a neighbour's ram - a meaty Hampshire Down, a lowland breed. Both our sheep were in lamb and by March 2005 we were looking forward to 3 or maybe 4 lambs - the idea was to sell a couple and slaughter a couple for the freezer.

With wonderful timing our first sheep, No. 2, gave birth in the middle of a Sunday afternoon, notwithstanding the fact that for the preceding week i'd been getting up in the middle of the night to drive a mile down the road for a 10 minute check on them, then doing the same before setting off to work later in the morning! Fab result - 2 ewe lambs - all was looking good.

Next No. 1 started in labour. After an hour or so of straining it was clear that there was something wrong. I put on the glove and 'lubed up' but couldn't feel anything with my inexperienced fumbling fingers. The vet was called and what followed was an eye opening insight into in-stable surgery as a Caesarian section was performed!

I was holding the head of No 1 in a halter; she was stood against an interior brick wall of a pigsty stoically waiting as the vet cut into her side with a scalpel. Slowly as the minutes ticked by she started to get weak and went down on her right foreleg; I pulled it gently from under her and the vet continued to work. After a while the vet pulled out first one, then a second dead lamb. Louise went off with instructions to bring a pail of warm water which was unceremoniously sloshed inside poor No.1. The dead lambs lay forlornly in an old feed bag, out of sight of their mother.

A bit overwhelming but a strangely fascinating experience. The vet said that No 1 might live - we'd know inside a week if she had an infection or not. We were give some antibiotics and the bill came through the post a week or so later - £140. Were we put off? Nah. If anything the experience strengthened our resolve. We were now set on a move to our own smallholding.

On the lush Hampshire grass the new lambs grew well. We called them (you guessed it!) No. 1 Lamb and No. 2 Lamb. In retrospect names would have been easier... The lambs inherited the wool-characteristics of their father - 'very' sums it up!. One evening in October I received a call at work from Judith saying that she thought one of the lambs had the dreaded fly-strike. We raced down there and in the light of a bare bulb we clipped and picked our way through the fleece of the first lamb picking out a mass of writhing maggots - an awful job. Both had been 'struck', but one worse than another. The length of fleece disguising the damage going on beneath.

Time was passing and we were by now saving hard to reduce our mortgage leaving us either mortgage free or with a small enough mortgage to cope with once we moved to Wales. My work was becoming.... well let's just say 'difficult'. Certainly not worth the attractive salary. Louise was well on-board with any potential move to Wales, identified as our preferred location. We went on a camping holiday to Pembrokeshire in 2005, ostensibly to recce the estate agents and get a feel for what our preferred area would be. We also made a weekend trip to Newcastle Emlyn, again to have a mooch around.

In July 2006 we saw a place outside of Crymych on the edge of the Preselis. It was within our budget and we put in an offer which was accepted. We put our house on the market at a realistic price and sold within a week. Hurrah! To cut a long story short the sale fell through in the November; we put it up again, and sold it again. This time it was looking good, but this time it fell through in the first week of November. As the first buyers had been reassuring us all along that they were on board and were close to exchanging contracts we had been packed up and living out of boxes since October... Anyway, 3rd time lucky - we sold again the week before Christmas, to solicitors. Unsurprisingly the sale went through according to plan and we moved to Wales on the 7th Feb 2007. It was snowing as we pulled up on the drive - cold and tired, but elated our smallholding life was to start for real!

Coming next - the chickens move and we collect the sheep, we build stables, get our first pigs and meet the local foxes... Thanks for following.

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