Why is lambing at Easter time?
Ewes come into season (become ready to mate) in autumn/winter, and gestation is around 5 months, so lambing in the UK traditionally occurs around Easter (though often earlier in the south of England, and later in the north of Scotland) – which is convenient, as the weather is warming up and grass (their primary food source after they’re weaned from mother’s milk) is starting to grow. The farmer puts his/her ewes to the ram (called ‘tupping’) in organized groups so s/he can accurately predict the arrival date of the first newcomers, which then arrive in a flurry, heralding a month of sleep deprivation and hard work for the farmer. Though a familiar part of the UK landscape, sheep actually originate from Mesopotamia, and as most modern breeds have been developed for qualities which make them less able to look after themselves than wild sheep, they need help to flourish in the British climate. Wild sheep moult naturally, but modern wool breeds can’t. Shearing is usually in May, though some farms shear before lambing to encourage chilly ewes to lead their chilly lambs to shelter; sheep in fleeces can withstand a light frost, but if lambs get cold and wet they will die. Wet weather also causes foot rot, and encourages the spread of more damaging problems (eg. foot and mouth disease, which is killed off by hot, dry weather). With the rain and flooding in the UK in recent years, these factors have become increasingly relevant to sheep farming. Local farmer Ian Paxton even takes the novel step of keeping his lambs warm and dry in the polytunnels in which he cultivates his chillis (find him selling these in summer at East Oxford Farmers' & Community Market, amongst other places) - though most farmers don’t go this far!
How do lambs arrive?
Ewes ready to give birth are moved into a big communal lambing shed so they are protected from weather and predators (though more hardy sheep may manage outside). Once ready, well-behaved lambs will dive out into the world with forelegs and head together. As with any birth, there are numerous possible complications that can occur, but in general most labours take 1-3 hours and most ewes can manage without assistance. Sod’s Law dictates though that all mishaps will happen at once if you don’t check your birthing ewes, so in general, 3 hours is the longest any farmer will leave his/her flock without checking them (and yes, that includes during the night). Once out in the world, a lamb will be licked clean by a good mum; like a human baby, a lamb is born with its birthing sac still intact over its mouth, and this must be wiped away before the baby can breathe. A healthy lamb will be on its feet within 45 minutes - ready to escape danger if need be - and ewes will eat their own placenta. Not only is the high protein content perfect for restoring energy after the trials of birth, but the trail of clues which a hungry predator could follow to a larger meal is tidied away.
When lambs are out, mum and babies are moved to an individual pen of their own to encourage bonding and prevent them from getting mixed up with other lambs in the shed. Male lambs are castrated (though one or two might be kept to be a new breeding ram, but it’s more likely that rams are bought in from special breeding farms) and long wiggly tails are docked for hygiene reasons. In both cases a tiny rubber ring is applied to cut off blood supply, and the unwanted items simply dry up and fall off (DO NOT try this at home). Ear tags are applied and may be different colours to indicate age and sex; numbers are painted onto lambs to match up babies to mums; and then it’s off to the open pasture.
What happens then?
Lambs initially stick close to mum, but soon form a big leaping playful gang that bounces about the place causing mischief. Sometimes farmers will invest in a guard llama to act as babysitter for the whole flock, as they will bond with the sheep and are big and ugly enough to deter foxes and other predators. Lambs feed on a mixture of milk from mum, grass and dry foods provided by the farmer (hay, peas, barley, etc. In the Scottish Highlands many farms rely on the byproducts of the whisky-making industry for their sheep’s feed constituents). Finally, the lambs will be collected for market (or slaughter if spring lamb) at around 3 months of age.
How do lambs become lamb meat?
It’s not pleasant to think of a baby animal being taken from its mother, herded with others, taken in a cramped lorry and delivered, confused and probably frightened, to a clinical endpoint to face execution. This is the inevitable reality of meat farming, however, and if you eat meat, it seems fair to face this. In the past, a butcher would visit a farm to slaughter animals there. Today lambs travel by specially adapted lorry to their local abattoir (which may be some distance). Organic animals are processed first thing in the day to prevent contamination from non-organic animals. They are stunned by electrocution, then their throats are slit. Carcasses are hung up to drain out the blood (in halal butchery, it is vitally important that it’s this part of the process that actually causes the death of the animal), then processed by staff who expertly remove the skin and divide the body into its separate useable parts.
What else do we get from sheep?
A remarkable amount. Today there are about 36 million sheep in the UK (that’s more than half the number of people!), of around 60 different breeds. Around 17 million are lambs (ie. under 1 year old). 85% of the sheep meat eaten here originates here and we have the largest sheep industry in Europe, producing about 1% of the world’s raw wool (most of which comes from slaughtered lambs). We also use sheep’s milk to make cheese. The most famous sheep’s milk cheeses come from mainland Europe - Greek feta, French Roquefort, Spanish manchego, Italian pecorino and ricotta - but there are several British varieties. Award-winning Oxfordshire cheesemaker Roger Crudge (find him at East Oxford Farmers & Community Market) makes sheep’s cheeses in Kingham in partnership with farmer Alex James (former bass player of well-known Britpop band Blur!). Whilst a ewe can still be breeding at the age of twenty, some sheep find alternative careers as show animals or hired lawnmowers. To find other sheep-derived products, just check your cosmetics for the invaluable ingredient lanolin - a natural oil produced by sheep to condition their wool - or look in the kitchen for desserts containing gelatine (derived from waste meat byproducts), or in the bathroom for soaps containing tallow (raw sheep fat). Chances are that something you’re wearing right now has wool in it – and if not, the carpet under your feet and the mattress on your bed probably do, and your gloves, handbag or wallet might be made of lambskin.
Whilst meat is today more important to us in the UK (most high-quality wool for clothing now comes from the Antipodes), wool was about the most important major textile internationally until the late 20th century. Sheep were one of the first animals that humans domesticated, and in the UK it was actually the Romans who set up the first wool processing factory, in Winchester (the former capital of England) in AD 50. By AD 1000, England and Spain were the main western producers of wool. Sheep and wool production fed vast amounts of cash into local economies – in Suffolk, every hamlet with an enormous church probably had it built by a local wool family. On the other hand, there was a dark side to the success of sheep farming. Landowners saw increasingly that they could make fortunes through wool production, and began to enclose their land away from the people who had for centuries subsistence farmed it. In Scotland, the most severe and brutal instances of this activity are what we know as the Highland Clearances. Find out more about the history of this period at http://www.highlandclearances.info.
Due to the enormous impact sheep have had on us over the centuries, they tend to crop up in some unexpected places. They often feature in rural idylls in literature, art and life; Marie Antoinette liked to dress as a shepherdess and wander about Versaille with her own small flock, for example. Sheep appear as Zodiac symbols in Chinese and western astrology, feature in the bible (Jesus was ‘the lamb of God’, after all), in ancient Egyptian religion, in numerous fairytales and in Aesop’s famous fables – and we even count them to get to sleep. They’ve permeated our language too: the verb ‘to ram’ something has an obvious origin, as does ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing’, even if it’s less clear why we are ‘sheepish’, and maybe rather unfair to sheep to describe people as being ‘woolly-headed’. Though this does lead us neatly onto another question…
Are sheep stupid?
We have Wikipedia to thank for the following information:
“Sheep are frequently thought of as extremely stupid animals. A sheep's herd mentality and quickness to flee and panic in the face of stress often make shepherding a difficult endeavor for the uninitiated. Despite these perceptions, a University of Illinois monograph on sheep found them to be just below pigs and on par with cattle in IQ, and some sheep have shown problem-solving abilities; a flock in Yorkshire, England found a way to get over cattle grids by rolling on their backs. In addition to long-term facial recognition of individuals, sheep can also differentiate emotional states through facial characteristics. If worked with patiently, sheep may learn their names, and many sheep are trained to be led by halter for showing and other purposes.”
And finally…how have the recent disease scares in UK agriculture affected sheep farming?
Bluetongue and foot and mouth disease have led to restrictions in movement of livestock, and also to large-scale culls of infected animals (chiefly to prevent the spread of disease, but also because this is cheaper than treating them, and the government reimburses farmers for their losses). Recently, lambs ready for slaughter have been confined to farms and thus still needed feeding, which incurs higher costs for the farmer. This caused some farms to diversify, away from livestock. Organic and smaller-scale farms are better equipped to cope with change than large farming set-ups, as their land is more likely to be in mixed use already, so easier to keep going with a change in focus. They also have access to a more reliable market in the form of local farmers’ markets - which won’t drop you suddenly as a supplier because your competitor is cheaper, as a supermarket might – and don’t have a middleman taking a hefty commission. In recent years there have been some shocking revelations about how little farmers actually make from their produce. The supermarket chain Waitrose was moved to declare in late 2007 that they would be paying their lamb suppliers ‘…a minimum of 230p/kg for the rest of the season - well above market levels, which have fallen to as low as 170p/kg’.
If you are an organic farmer, there are several factors to consider. You need to pay much greater attention to the welfare of your animals, giving them space to roam - especially outdoors - and you need to source organic feed for them. You are not allowed to dose them with antibiotics as a pre-sickness preventative method as many conventional farmers do (though use for treatment of sickness is condoned, the meat from treated animals becomes non-organic), nor to use organophosphate dips to stop your sheep getting parasites in their skin and wool (a common problem). All these measures drive the costs of production up - but they also ensure that animals are far less likely to be mistreated during their lives, that much less damage is caused to the environment (sheep dip is highly toxic to both the farmer and to fish, and can end up in rivers after seeping into groundwater), and that the customer will happily pay a higher price to the farmer for the produce as a result. However, gaining organic certification can be a long and complex process which many farms struggle to complete. In some cases – as with Sandy Lane Farm in Tiddington (visit their cooperative market on Thursdays or find them at East Oxford market on alternate Saturdays) – farms will choose to go mainly but not certifiably organic (for example, Sandy Lane have organic veg but non-certified lamb). In these cases it’s a toss-up for us, the consumers. Is it better to buy very local and almost organic, directly supporting a local farmer and reducing transport costs and pollution, or to buy fully organic from further afield from a supermarket which may be underpaying its supplier? Either way, if you’ve ever felt uneasy about how disconnected we’ve become from the food we eat, or wondered why New Zealand lamb is ever on the menu in a pub in the UK, it’s not too late to go and investigate your dinner before it gets to your plate. At Sandy Lane Farm you will even be able to see this year’s new lambs gambolling about looking cute before you choose your meat from their large freezer (and pick your organic veg to go with it).
Thanks for essential facts to: Jen Pawsey, the Vegetarian Society & Sue at Sandy Lane Farm.