It’s the day job taking over for the next couple of days but I didn’t want to leave you without anything to read so I wondered how you’d like this piece. A few years ago I owned a hill farm high up in the Yorkshire Dales, surrounded by moorland and sheep. Here’s a tale from those days.For more like it go to http://www.writeonthebeach.co.uk
I slip quietly downstairs to the kitchen, shuffle on coat, boots and woolly hat and brace myself as I open the back door. Outside, my eyes water as the bitterly cold air cuts into me. The pink-grey morning light spreads across the sky, casting a cold metallic sheen. I walk up to the farm and the grass starched by frost rustles underfoot. My breath puffs out in white clouds. From below, in the valley, the church clock chimes half-past six.
I join the shepherd in the farmyard and grabbing a bag of feed for the ewes we go through the gates onto the moor. A few sheep are already waiting at the troughs and we scatter some of the feed cubes for them. We leave the bag on the wall top until we bring all the sheep down with us.
We walk under the shadow of the wall. The shepherd carries an old mildewed satchel in which are baler band, marking fluid, a syringe and a bottle of calcium. His dog Fly glides along at his heels, one ear pricked the other flat. We walk steadily, our eyes scanning the heather and rock outcrops. Suddenly we come upon a bunch of ewes on their way to the trough. Cream- woolled with curly horns they hustle past us. The dot of blue on the right shoulder identifies them.
“Shearlings, flighty beggars”
I look askance
“They need watching. They’re lambing for the first time and many’s the one that’ll drop a lamb and wander off without it.”
We move on. The moor looms black and forbidding in the early light. I catch a glimpse of a stoat, slinking out of a wall crevice. It stands, poised, black eyes glinting and then slips along the wall side, its black-tipped tail waving gently.
The shepherd touches my arm and I follow his gaze. A ewe stands solitary in the middle of the moor. She looks up anxiously at our approach, casting quick glances behind her. She stamps a foot angrily as we invade her privacy. A patch of white shows why. She stands over her lamb, staring fiercely at Fly. The lamb staggers to its feet with a small pathetic cry. The ewe answers with throaty bleats and whickering. Skilfully with his short lambing crook the shepherd catches the new-born, drawing it to him. From the satchel he takes the marking fluid, red to match the stripes on the mother’s horn.
“That’s a grand Scotch gimmer (female) from that tup out of Hawes” he says with quiet satisfaction.
He frees the lamb and she stumbles to her mother, pushing under her belly for milk. We leave them in peace.
Our next call is to a rocky outcrop, part of the old quarry from where the stone for the farmhouse and barns was taken. Every year, one particular ewe drops her lamb here. She does not disappoint for, cradled in a stony hollow, two sooty faces stare up at us. Standing guard is the mother, aged, with grey hairs streaking her muzzle and a grizzled topknot between the rough ridged horns. Again the shepherd marks the lambs adding a blue spot at the top of the tails to indicate a twin. The ewe watches from a distance, silhouetted against the silver sky.
“She should’ve been drafted last backend but I kept her for just one more time.” The shepherd murmurs.
A battalion of clouds now fills the pewter sky and it begins to rain, hard, freezing drops. We spot a shearling alone, moving uneasily, a dab of white at the tail. Instantly the dog is sent to bring her in to the wall side.
“She’ll have started lambing and then given ower once the head’s out.”
Swollen and grotesque the lamb’s head looks out from its mother’s body into a miserable cold world. I turn the shearling on one side and kneeling, the shepherd carefully inserts his hand behind the protruding head. He shuts his eyes in concentration, frowning slightly as the wet runs down his collar. Then, one by one, he eases out the forelegs and the shearling, in response, begins her contractions again. Seconds later, the lamb is born; another gimmer but apparently lifeless. Hers is no fleece as white as snow. It is creamy-yellow with tiny knots all over, like little pearls. The shepherd massages her gently; there is a flicker of life in the blue eyes and he brings her round to suck at the teats but her head lolls from side to side. He squirts a few drops of milk into her mouth. She gulps and swallows. Then, miraculously she’s at the teat and sucking for all she’s worth as though to make up for what she nearly missed. Her tail wriggles in delight. We mark her and leave the pair under the shelter of the wall. Already the head is less swollen.
The rain continues and I worry for the lambs being thrust out from their warm world into this harsh land. But there is nothing to be done about it. This high moorland farm has little in the way of in-bye land – the more sheltered pasture. We come to the head of the moor. Under the high boundary wall there are groups of sheep huddled together, stoically enduring the unspring like weather. Fly gathers them together and they crowd and jostle each other as they go to join the rest of the flock at the troughs.
We also begin our return journey along the other side of the moor. Icy rain drives into our faces and I bend my head to it but my companion continues his steady, bandy-legged walk, head up, eyes watchful. From a discreet distance we observe another ewe lamb down in the heather. No trouble with this one. She drops her lamb quickly and draws it to the shelter of her side. She looks a bit bemused before starting to lick it all over. Before long, the little scrap of black and white is wobbling on its feet, all long legs, knock knees and big head. It makes for the teat bumping and butting under the woolly belly of its mother. The quick flick of its tail tells its own story.
“Best leave them to settle. I’ll be back after breakfast.”
The rain peters out and a ribbon of blue sky winds through the clouds. A brace of grouse rises off the heather, chuckling together at some private joke. We are nearing the bottom of the moor and we can see the ewes gathering at the gates for their rations.
The mournful blaring of a sheep, like a foghorn, warns us. We see the ewe wandering aimlessly in a circle. We look in vain for a lamb. She doesn’t move away as we draw near, but cries the more pitifully. We walk the length of a narrow ditch cutting across the moor corner and find the lamb floating head down in the water. Sadly we lift out the sodden corpse. She must have lambed straight into the ditch and the lamb never drew breath. The ewe walks away unconsoled. The shepherd will find an orphan lamb to put on to her later.
One of the small fields at the back of the farm is dotted with sheep and their playful offspring. This is lamb kindergarten. Not for these the luxury of the pen and the fold. They must take what shelter the land offers. We lean on the wall watching the endless games of tag and it is hard to realise that a day or so ago these were the new-born. But I’m beginning to appreciate the fine thread which separates life and death for these hardy, resourceful creatures.
The shepherd scrutinise the lambs, noting the build, the face and leg markings. He’s looking at the results of his decisions last autumn. He knows which tup has sired which lambs and he makes his first assessment.
We serve breakfast to the mob of ewes now gathered at the moor gates. They circle round us, watching with wary blue eyes as we fill the troughs. Then they lower their heads, nibbling fastidiously at the unaccustomed food.
The clock below strikes eight and the day has only just begun.