Time to check on how many new arrivals to expect
Autumn is a time for romance on the farm; at least it is if you’re a sheep. A couple of months ago it was tupping time, the age-old practice of putting the rams (or tups) to the ewes, with an eye on next spring’s new arrivals. Soon it will be the moment of reckoning for those love-struck rams as we check just how successful they’ve been at the task. All our breeding ewes, in our commercial flock and on the Farm Park, are scanned at about 80 days in to their gestation period and it’s done in the same way that midwives check expectant women in doctors’ surgeries and hospitals. We hire an experienced sonographer who’s paid per sheep and uses an ultrasound scanner and monitor to literally build up a picture of the lambs in the womb.
Ewes generally have two teats so ideally we’re looking for each expectant mum to have twins. When farmers discuss the success of their flock we’ll talk about the lambing percentage and the figure we’re aiming for is 200%. It’s all a bit baffling to everyone who’s not in to farming but it’s based on that concept of two lambs for each ewe.
So if all our girls have twins we’ll hit 200% and everyone’s happy. If they all had just one lamb it would be 100% which indicates a problem and bad news for us commercially. If it’s above 200% then they’re producing too many triplets or quads and that’s a worry. For us, knowing what’s inside the ewes at this time of year is a management tool; it means we can give each animal the right food, in the right amounts, to ensure she has a healthy pregnancy. It’s also an easy way of identifying any ewes which we had assumed were pregnant, but aren’t.
Despite the technology and the keen eye of the professional livestock sonographer, there are still occasions when you can get caught out. Last year we got a pleasant surprise when one of our flock that we thought was expecting five lambs, actually gave birth to six. She did incredibly well and only needed our help delivering one of her newborns; for any ewe to have four lambs at once is a lot, five is unusual but six is virtually unheard of. In fact the last time there were sextuplets on the farm must have been when I was about five years old. So this time you can imagine the fuss we made over them.
The annual scan is something we’ve done for years and until recently we carried it out away from public view. In truth that’s the way most seasonal jobs on the land were carried out in the past; farmers did their work, the public let them get on with it and never the twain shall meet. For most people the five-bar gate was firmly closed and farms were a bit of a no-go area. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, here at Bemborough Farm and working on TV, it’s that the public have a real appetite to know more about agriculture. When I was first approached to present BBC Lambing Live with Kate Humble back in 2010, I honestly thought we’d struggle to fill one programme. But from the start we were flooded with texts and emails from viewers asking the most detailed questions and in the end it ran for three whole series. So I’m keen to do as much as possible to satisfy that thirst for knowledge and information. That’s why we’re holding a special one-off public event at the Farm Park to demonstrate and explain the scanning process. On December 15 we’ll be using the ultrasound equipment with some of our pregnant ewes in front of visitors in the Animal Barn. It’s always delightful to see the joy on people’s faces and hear the things they ask about the unborn lambs, but it’s even more rewarding to get our first fleeting glimpse of a new, little life.
“Sheep, may be the beauty or the beast, may be the famine or the feast…” RIP Charles Aznavour