Cheviots, Tong Barn, Isle of Lewis. April 2009

For many crofters on the Isle of Lewis, the lambing season will shortly be drawing to a close. While this may invoke a sigh of relief on their parts, a chance to catch up on some sleep and refresh for the next stage of the year round process, it is also a time to reflect on the highs and lows of the event.

My short visit, thanks to a city-work delayed arrival, to lend a hand again this year, was less intense than the 2008 lambing with only a couple of dozen ewes left to attend to. The excellent weather too made the experience a much more sanguine affair with newly nursed lambs able to move from their pens and out into the big wide world much quicker than last year where we often had a barn bursting at the seams to avoided turfing the wee mites into the driving rain and wind too soon. As usual the graveyard shift went to yours truly and the working day went along the lines of a 2am until 4am visit, keeping a watchful eye on the expectant ewes followed by a caffeine fueled shift around 10am to relieve one of the other two crofters working alongside. After lunch, the afternoons were mostly taken up with moving beasts from the barn onto various crofts, feeding and watering, cleaning out pens and attending to any medical requirements as necessary, all the while watching for the tell-tale signs of an impending birth. Evenings returned to an bi-hourly shift pattern and by 10pm I was usually fast asleep.

Part science, part artform, the predicting of who will bring forth their lambs next is always a topic on discussion. Of course, good stock management will have the gestation time from when ewe went to tup all worked out but Nature does not always run to schedule. While the signs of an imminent arrival are easy to spot (pawing the ground, moving off from her companions, straining and the obvious appearance of a uterine water bag), the more long range forecast is best left to old hands. Oftentimes, the size, colour and covering of the udder provides a shamanic predictor of parturition and observation, fondling and consideration of this humble body part can settle the week’s running order if done with wisdom. Ladbrokes or Gala casinos should get in on the action next year as Aintree or Blackjack struggles to emulate the tension and debate involved to picking the next Mom to be.

The births ranged, as ever, from unattended, unassisted magical productions to hands on, sweat breaking, cramp inducing labours. A few times, the barn was entered at 2am and, lo, a lamb-child was born in darkness with no need for human intervention. Instinct and experience sees the mother lick and stimulate her new progeny with a rough tongue until he/she staggers to their four stilt-like hooves and begin their demands for milk. It never ceases to amaze me the vigour of these wee creatures, one minute ensconced in warm, watery darkness, umbilically breathing, the next out in the open air, finding their feet and nudging between hind legs for their mother’s colostrum. The mother too, guides and chatters advice to ensure the new born finds a teat and begins fuelling themselves, building the antibodies needed to go forth and prosper. All that one needs to do is iodine spray their belly buttons and dose them for scour and they’re good to go.

On other occasions things don’t go as smoothly. Overly large lambs whether by breed or by feed mean that, gimmers in particular, struggle to manage alone and a helping hand is required. Usually one smothered in antibacterial, industrial-strength lubricant by the name of Agri-gel. More serious still, lambs can present themselves for arrival in a host of unhelpful positions. Rather than dive, both feet first, head rested ‘tween hooves, into the world, some come with leg or legs tucked back or even worse, breeched. Manipulation and skill is required to free these incorrections and prevent loss to one or both parties in trouble. I had two occasions in which the lamb was presented wrongly. In the first I was unable, despite much effort to retrieve a limb tucked behind the lamb, it’s shoulders too big and square to pass freely as a result. All I could do was keep the fellow breathing, his head sticking out and gasping through fluids, until help arrived. More experienced hands pushed the lamb back in, freed the limb and hauled him into the world alive and unharmed. Phew.

Another evening a ewe was struggling to deliver her twins and we found them entangled with each other inside and with no chance of delivering normally. A struggle which felt like eternity followed by the most experienced crofter to release them but cramp and clamping meant my, thankfully smaller, hands were called upon. Luckily this time I managed to unhook the limbs into positon and pulled a behemoth of a lamb from it’s mother. The twin which followed wasn’t so fortunate and arrived dead, despite best efforts to revive…

The highs and lows of the season resolve themselves with a satisfaction in taking part in one of the island’s great events. Soon the crofts are filled with young lambs racing each other, butting heads and bleating their new world demands. Inevitably they eat, fatten and grow towards the slaughterhouse to provide food for our belly. And what fine eating they make, whether plump spring lamb or longer lived, heather fed wedders. A percentage will live on however, the best males becoming rams and enjoying access to a good number of the opposite sex towards the end of the year and females too survive to become mothers themselves as the circle completes and the cycle continues.

It’s a cliche but it’s a miraculous thing to experience and one I won’t tire of (if the crofters I work with are anything to go by). During the season, the barn is often visited by people bringing their children to see the lambs and if the timing is right, and kids willing, a live birth in full swing. I believe local schools should make more of this time of year, the perfect way to show the practical side of a Biology class or get a bit of Birds & Bees discussion out of the way. In between all this livestock looking-after, there are the bonus payments of just being outdoors. Days of fresh air, cobweb-blowing wind, and shit shovelling in sunshine are a pleasure. Small birds, mice and other co-habitants provide their distractions and at night the canopy of stars assure you of your insignificant place in this small patch of order in an infinite and swirling universe.

As a city boy, cut off from such things, that one week alone has filled my soul again and given me the energy to keep going through the comparative mundanity of Glasgow life. To those of you who are on the island at this time, I’d encourage you to say hello to the crofters working the sheep, get yourself a bit of insider info and see if you can observe things for yourself. Who knows, maybe even get your hands dirty too…