a WWOOFer’s new skills

Jun 1, 2015

WWOOFer Joan Brown has recently used the WWOOF exchange to great advantage to acquire new skills and insights, which may just change her life: 

On April 7, I made my way, via the Errington Sheeps’ Cheese farm near Lanark, to Moss Peteral by Greenhead in Northumberland, to take up a nine day WWOOF position as lambing assistant. This was a pre-retirement research trip since I hope to keep dairy sheep myself one day soon. Here was my chance to learn all I could about looking after ewes and lambs. 

The first day dawned a beautiful dewy morning with the sun glistening on every blade of grass. Later in the week sharp frosts, rain, hail, sleet and snow would follow, blown in on strong winds. But day one was perfect spring weather. At 7 o’clock I crossed the yard to the lambing shed where Sue, WWOOF host and shepherdess-in-chief, had been at work since daybreak. She was mothering up and penning the new-born lambs. Sue then set off on the quad bike with food for the lambed ewes with twins in the in-bye meadows, and tasked me to give hay and water to all the penned sheep. 

After breakfast we marked up the day-old lambs. Sue climbed into each pen and checked the health and whether the tummies were full for each new family. I recorded the ewe’s ear-tag number with date and number and sex of lambs. Any cross-bred (mule) lambs had their tails docked with elastic bands and all male lambs, both Swaledales and mules, were castrated in the same way. Sue sprayed their individual family number on the right side of each ewe and her lambs, for example purple colour (twin) 123, or red colour (single) 17. I made notes such as ‘scanned for twins but produced triplets’ where appropriate. 

With recording complete, Sue chose the families ready to go back out to pasture. Some went straight from their pens; others had spent a day in the ‘nursery’ area where the lambs had room to run around. We loaded the families into a purpose-built trailer with space for three ewes. To keep stress to a minimum, the lambs were carried slowly and gently to the trailer with the ewe pulled along on the invisible bond of motherhood. The lambs were placed in a small compartment in the trailer and when Mum heard them bleating, she hopped up beside them and the compartment gate closed ready for the next ewe to be loaded. On release into the fields I could see the pleasure the ewes experienced in getting back to the fresh grass they love best. 

After ‘putting out’ mucking out started in earnest. Each pen in the lambing shed had to be made ready for the next family. Soiled straw was folded into piles and lifted into the wheelbarrow using a wide-tined fork or grape. I then scraped the earth floor of the pen with a shovel to remove the last of the dirt. A kitchen flour dredger, but here containing lime, was used to sprinkle the pen and so neutralise and clean the floor. I gathered a full double armfuls of fresh barley straw from the large round bale and spread it in the pen to give a clean and cosy space for the next ewe. I replenished the hay-rack and water bucket in readiness, and shut the entrance to prevent unwanted guests from stealing the hay. Mucking out is hard physical work but most days was done in about an hour and so was not too exhausting. 

While the sheep have constant access to silage or hay and water this is supplemented with hard feed morning and evening. To go amongst hungry Swaledales with sacks of ewe-nuts requires nerves of steel and physical dexterity. The feed must be trailed swiftly into troughs to give the sheep quick access and minimise the feeding frenzy. It is important to avoid being knocked over in the rush. The penned ewes then also got a scoop of food in a recycled dish – a rectangular bottle with the side cut out. Orphan lambs in the nursery have a warm bottle of formula milk four times a day as well. Feeding the little ones can take time and patience, but older lambs are, like their mums, boisterous and pushy at feeding time.

The Swaledales that had scanned for single lambs needed to be gathered in from the furthest reaches of the fell to areas nearer the farmstead to lamb. That day the two border collies, Cat and Fleck, came into their own. Alan, Sue’s partner, set off on the quad-bike with Cat on a clockwise circuit of the thousand acre ‘moss’, while Sue went on foot anti-clockwise with Fleck. I was stationed near a southerly fence with the instruction to push the sheep towards the fence so they could be driven down to the farm yard. The mid-day sun shone warmly, the breeze buffeted me with gentle gusts while four skylarks sang lustily near and far above me like pinpricks of brightness in a tranquil day. Long, long moments passed as I stood motionless, listening to a ewe nearby gently cropping the new grass growing between the tussocks of reeds and rushes. Curlews called their series of soft descending notes. 

After what seemed like an age, a trickle of white appeared over the horizon and oozed down the fell, gradually growing into a flood of Swaledales heading for the farm. The dogs steadily prompted the ewes not to stop and graze but to keep moving. The flock dutifully trotted into the farmyard and the gate swung shut with a satisfying clang. After lunch the five ewes sporting orange stripes, denoting ‘empty’, were put out with the hogs (young females). The three lame sheep were caught and their troublesome hooves pared back and sprayed with purple antibiotic. Two old ewes were taken to ‘sick bay’ where an eye could be kept on them. Then the remaining flock of ‘singles’ was slowly driven to their new enclosure nearby. 

Other jobs, such as helping position and unwrap a new silage bale, changing the ring feeder to one suitable for horned sheep, spreading a giant bale of fresh straw in the lambing shed, mucking out the old byre where sheep had been bedded in the worst of a recent blizzard, mucking out the Christmas turkey accommodation and carting and stacking logs in the boiler room were all completed during my stay. I also took the collies for walks in empty fields on days when they had no work. Once, on calling to Cat, ‘This way’, she heard ‘Away’ and set off on her long curving collie’s outrun. After a hundred yards or so she realised there were no sheep to be collected and, very disappointed, thereafter treated everything I said with total disbelief. 

Each evening Trudi provided a really good home made dinner and Alan produced a glass of wine. Trudi also made lovely cakes. The chocolate one was exceptional – it blew its top off in the oven and Trudi said, ‘Oh look, it’s lambed’. We laughed a lot. We also discussed sheep dairying, agri-economics, subsidies, community supported agriculture and other sustainable ideas. One evening we went to a talk in Haltwhistle given by a local countryside ranger entitled Helping the Pollinators and learned a lot about bumblebees, solitary bees, moths, butterflies and other pollinators and how to encourage them. 

The skills I gained on my WWOOF Lambing Assistant placement were: quad bike driving; sheep handling (ewes with new-borns); mucking out; lamb shed and pen maintenance; feeding sheep and lambs; docking tails and castrating; care of sheep’s feet; lambing (checking for good presentation, clearing airways, iodining umbilicus); mothering-up (observing who is about to lamb or has just lambed); medication (watery mouth, lice, CODD). 

My heartfelt thanks go to Sue and Alan for giving me such a fantastic WWOOF experience. 

We wish Joan every success with her long term plans to keep dairy sheep and hope to welcome her as a host when the time comes. 

The delightful illustrations are by Trudi Warner, WWOOF UK director and baker of cakes. 

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