After losing lambs to the snow, the farmer decided to take extreme measures
Silence of the lambs
I’ve been farming here in Shropshire since I left school in 1976 and shepherding for 29 years. But I’ve never known conditions like the ones we had on Friday night the week before last. All of a sudden it was bitterly cold, the east winds started cutting across the fields and the snow, rain and sleet were hammering down.
It went on until Monday night: it was simply the worst weather you could have at lambing time. We lamb in March because the days are a bit longer and we want to catch the better weather. You can expect a bit of wintry weather, but it’s very unusual for the conditions to last as long as they have.
It was horrible. In extreme conditions, livestock farmers who farm their sheep out are at the mercy of the elements. When it’s dark and snowing hard, there’s nothing you can do. You have a sleepless night and it’s only the next day that you can look for your animals. On Saturday we found we’d lost three lambs to the cold and on Sunday we found that another two, from a different group, had died. These were strong, healthy lambs that had been born a week earlier. They wanted to survive. They shouldn’t have died.
Digging for life
Sheep will find hollows in the fields or take shelter by a wall or tree, but if they lie down to protect themselves from the weather, the snow will cover them and they’ll suffocate. I remember my father telling me he had dug his sheep out of the snow in 1947 — another bad year — the way I’ve seen other farmers do this year.
You have to “rod down”, taking out a pole the morning after a bad snowfall, looking around for a small hole where — if you’re lucky — the breath of the sheep has melted the snow and digging down to find the sheep. You hope it will still be alive.
Lambs don’t have any oil or lanolin at the base of their wool, so they’re susceptible to the cold, especially when it’s wet. They can get hypothermia in the cold weather, or even hypoglycaemia. This is when a lamb misses a feed, burns all its energy and goes into a spiral that quickly ends in death.
So my partner and I decided to move almost all our lambs and ewes inside. I’m lucky that I have the space to house them all, but it was a real struggle: we had to split up pens to make room and use areas we normally wouldn’t use for lambing, such as cattle sheds, stables and poultry sheds — anything we could find. Since the ewes were still lambing we were full to bursting point and overcrowding can lead to other problems, such as the lambs picking up infections from the close air.
But they were so happy to be there. Within an hour of one group coming in you could see how relieved they were to be out of those horrible cold conditions. Some of them were lying on top of their mothers, where it’s a little bit warmer and softer for them.