October is a funny time on the farm. It sometimes seems a bit of a halfway house. The frantic activity of the harvest season has come to an end and the stores are chock-a-block with grain. In fact, midway through the month, the majority of the fields will already have been drilled with seed for next year’s harvest. Every year, we plan to finish drilling by 16 October. I don’t think any other farm in the country works to this particular date and for good reason – it’s Dad’s birthday. Back when he was running the farm, Dad always aimed to get the drilling over and done with so that he could enjoy his big day without having to think too much about the crops (although the animals didn’t care if he needed to open presents or not – they still wanted feeding). I still operate to the same timetable.
The sheep mentality
A few days after Dad has blown out the candles on his cake, I’ll be rounding up this year’s last lambs with my trusty sheepdogs Maud, Pearl and Millie. Taking all three dogs out is always a challenge, but I like to give them as much exercise as I can at this time of year. Getting lambs to move as a flock in the right direction can be quite tricky. They’re still learning their way around the farm and now that they have been weaned (taken away from the ewes), they don’t have mum to follow, so they tend to run around in circles after each other rather than towards the gateway that you’re aiming for. Patience is a virtue – they eventually get the hang of it.
A lot of people mistake the tendency of sheep to follow the leader as sheer stupidity. The truth is, they just can’t help it. The urge to follow is hard-wired into them from birth, a deep-rooted instinct to stick together that comes from a simple case of safety in numbers. My Dad always says that a person who calls a sheep “stupid” is often someone who has been outwitted by one.
Once the sheep are in a pen, we start drawing out the last of the fat lambs for slaughter. It’s the same process that we’ve run through all year, working our hands along the spine of the animal to see how many bumps you can feel on its back. If you can feel the individual vertebrae or ribs, then it hasn’t got enough meat on its bones. Of course, that’s only half the story. Just because the lamb has a good covering of meat doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ideal – if the meat is too soft to the touch, the chances are the sheep has gone to fat. Once you’ve found the perfect lamb, you pop it on the scales, checking it’s around 40 kilos, and then it’s off to slaughter.
The majority of the spring lambs will have already gone to the abattoir, and those that are still too small for meat will be sold as store lambs. This means they’ll go to another farm, usually somewhere where there is still a lot of grass, to be fattened up over winter. By now, our own Cotswold grass will be too thin to provide them with enough food and, if we didn’t sell them on, we’d be forced to give them expensive supplements. Unfortunately, that just wouldn’t make economic sense.
The peak of condition
Not all the spring lambs will be sent off the farm, though. During lambing, we set aside around 140 lambs to keep as replacements for the old girls that will reached the end of their productive lives over the next 12 months. Now, we’ll whittle that number down to around 100, selling the rest to breeders.
Even as the last lambs of 2010 leave the farm, we’ll be preparing for the first lambs of 2011. Midway through October, the ram – or tup – will be put to the ewes.
About four to six weeks before the rams are released, we begin ‘flushing’ the ewes, to make sure they are in tip-top condition. They are moved onto the best possible pasture so they can put on enough weight – not too much and not too little. Every ewe is graded on a sliding scale of one to five. One is very thin and five is over-fat. We need our ewes to rank about 3.5, which is the optimum condition for ovulation and – most importantly – fertilisation. The randy tups, on the other hand, need to have a good reserve of fat, so they’ll be packing a little more weight than the ladies as they are released. When you consider that one of our prize rams will serve up to 80 ewes, it becomes apparent that he needs all the energy he can get. Ideally your ram will score 4 on the conditioning scale. After all, he’s going to be a busy boy. He won’t have much chance to stop for a snack.