Monday, May 07, 2018

A Lamb's Cold Death In the Grass

A profile of James Rebanks' writing, twittering, and lamb-raising in the northern fells of Cumbria (Matterdale) appeared in a recent edition of New Yorker magazine. 

His book, The Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape, is a quite excellent read, and recommended!

I except parts of the New Yorker article, below, for the simple fact that it does not mention fox predation once, though weather and "mis-mothering' by sheep are a constant caution.

The Tweeting of the Lambs:
A Day in the Life of a Modern Shepherd

The hills of Cumbria, in northern England, are known as fells. They are among the wettest, coldest, and windiest places where sheep are farmed outdoors year-round. The weather is rotten, more or less, from October to May. So by lambing season — a three-week period, usually after Easter, when the ewes give birth, and there are triumphs and miscarriages, adoptions and accidents, gambolling and suckling — the flock, the shepherd, and the land itself are already worn out. “You’re just about fucked,” James Rebanks told me. “The whole thing is designed so you are just about to break.”

....He barely sleeps. “You are trying to keep things alive,” Rebanks said. “You make a mistake and something dies. And then—if you get through it—in a week or ten days’ time, the grass comes, the sun shines, and there is a feeling of absolute sheer exhaustion that turns to elation.”

It was just before seven o’clock last Wednesday morning. Two-thirds of Rebanks’s ewes had lambed during the previous sixteen days. In theory, he was through the worst of it. We stood in a steel-framed barn on his farm, which is in the valley of Matterdale, in the Lake District. One side of the barn was open to the sky, which was gusty and full of rain. Inside, Rebanks, who is forty-three, had made temporary stalls for the ewes and newborn lambs that were struggling. Straw and wood chips covered the ground, and the air smelled of wet wool and new milk. “This is basically the hospital,” Rebanks said. He wore green waterproofs from head to foot. “Everything that is healthy and strong and big is outside.”

....Lambing this year came after a hard winter. There were blizzards in northern England barely a month ago, and Rebanks’s sheep got sick with pneumonia and fluke. At one point he feared that twenty might die, though in the end only a few succumbed. “They are weaker than they should be,” Rebanks said, surveying the barn. In a good year, he has only five or six ewes and their lambs inside at any one time. On Wednesday, he had twenty-three. Mishaps, though, are part of every lambing season, and require Rebanks, who has no staff, to be in a dozen places at once. That morning, at dawn, one of his pregnant ewes, overcome with maternal instinct, had stolen a lamb from another sheep. Later, when she was giving birth to her own twins, the legs and heads were coming out in the wrong order. “I had to put them all back in and find the front two legs that belonged to the head, and fetch it out,” Rebanks said. A good lamb will come out like a diver. After Rebanks delivered the twins, the mother promptly abandoned one of them. It lay in the grass, bleating, while carrion crows hopped about, hoping to steal its eyes.

....We reached the pasture where the ewe had become confused over her lambs, and the crows were circling. “It’s a good, old-fashioned muddle-up,” Rebanks said. He scooped up four lambs and nudged the ewes behind them onto a small trailer to sort them out. The new lambs quivered on some yellow plastic sacking next to his blue graphite shepherd’s crook. They were three hours old and ba-a-a-ing at the wrong mothers.

.....He has less time to tweet during lambing, so the isolation is magnified. Every birth presents opportunities for things to go wrong. On a whiteboard in the barn, Rebanks tracked the births that had taken place so far, with “S”s standing for single lambs and “T”s for twins. There was another count, in the center: “Dead: 14.”

In 320-pages on sheep in the Matterdale and Patterdale regions, James Rebanks' barely mentions fox predation at all.

Lambs die wholesale death from cold and wet. They are abandoned by their mothers, starve, wander down hill and get lost, are born dead or twisted, and many die in the snow and mud despite all efforts to save them.

Every other year or so, a rogue fox may kill a newborn lamb or two. But this is clearly a rare thing, and less of an economic concern than almost every other kind of sheep mortality, from disease (Rebanks' sheep and cattle were wiped out by foot and mouth disease) to the loose dogs of roaming tourists (two predatory Jack Russell terriers very nearly get shot).

But don't take my world for it; here's a smart, observant and literate shepherd whose family has been keeping sheep in the fells around Matterdale and Patterdale for 100 years or more.  Read the book!


TEC said...

I will look for the book. Hope it is available as an e-book.

My dog and I helped a couple of seasons on a large commercial flock in E. Oregon. Owner had severa H-2A hands and volunteers, like me. With so many helpers, not much work for a dog at shearing and lambing, but many long hours and sleepless nights us.

Was mucking a jug or something when I heard and saw a good deal of excitement from the owner and couple Peruvian hands who had been loading a stock trailer to take mothers and lambs across a bridge to another field. He marks the ewe and lamb with coded paint numbers to keep them matched. One ewe's lambs was missing. We all fanned-out across the field to search. Shortly we heard the lamb baahing, and walked toward the sound. Down in a deeply encised stream on a narrow bank just above the water was the helpless one week old lamb. One jumped down the 5 ft vertical bank and handed uninjured lamb to me. In short order it was reunited with its mother. The number and kind of things that can go wrong raising sheep are almost endless. This owner had a contractor friend who would raise bottle lambs according to some kind of arrangement. -- TEC

Mark Farrell-Churchill said...

Rebanks is also featured in a recent Smithsonian article on the Lake District.

Edze said...

Yeah, I might read the book. But actually I live the life. It's lambing time right now on our farm in Iceland, and I started my new young sheepdog just a couple of weeks ago...

tuffy said...

i'm not sure why you think this book would say anything about foxes as sheep predators?!
they are not sheep predators--yes coyotes and wolves and regular dogs are, but not fox.

in all my years raising and treating sheep, i have never had a single sheep or lamb death from a fox. we in fact have both red and grey foxes living close by, who steal chickens, or pheasant, but never sheep/lambs. in fact there is a fox family living under our hay shed that seems to return year after year. they, along with the multitude of raptors, must be loving the gophers and field mice...

PBurns said...

Exactly the point Tuffy. In the UK, the claim is made of wholesale slaughter of lambs by fox. It’s fiction.