At this time of year, as the Devon countryside starts to reawaken, it’s the blooming of the daffodils and the sight of the lambs in the fields that give us hope that winter is giving up the ghost. Of all the mums on the farm, the ewes are most conspicuous at the moment – patiently watching over their lambs and tolerating what can be very boisterous and joyfully unruly behaviour. To us, the bond between ewes and lambs is extraordinary. In a field of 100 ewes, the babies will be able to find the right mum by the sound of her voice - and the range of baas, bleats, rumbles and murmers a ewe uses to communicate with her lambs is really quite touching.
Though they might stick by their mums when they’re really tiny, bigger lambs roam far and wide, rough-and-tumbling in packs (often overseen by a single babysitting ewe) while their mums get on with the important work of grazing. Because feeding lambs is hard work and uses up a lot of energy. Much of the nutrition a ewe takes on board goes straight to her udder and while her lambs burgeon, she’ll most likely lose condition. The lambs will drink little and often – frequently the ewe will walk off while they’re still drinking, to indicate feeding time is over – and if you watch carefully you’ll see them biffing the udder to bring the milk down as they latch on. It’s hard work being a sheep mum.
Not that being a pig mum is a walk in the park. Unlike the notable seasonality of lambing, pigs farrow (give birth) at any time of year and when they do, they can certainly have their hands full. Two litters per year are usual, with possibly 10 or more piglets in each litter, which is a lot of babies to be responsible for. Pig mums have a very complex, instinctively hard-wired urge to build a nest when they’re about to farrow. They need privacy, plenty of space and lots of bedding material – building the nest makes the sow comfortable for the rigours of labour, gives her a sense of security and creates an environment where the newly born piglets can easily find their way to the teat. Drinking milk as soon as possible after birth not only imparts rich nutrition and immunity to the piglet, the suckling action floods the new mum with maternal hormones and gives the piglets a shared smell so the sow knows they belong to her. Immediately after farrowing, the biggest challenge for a sow is keeping track of all her babies and – as they’re so tiny and she’s so huge – making sure she doesn’t accidentally squash any of them. It’s hard work being a pig mum.
Unlike piglets, calves normally come along individually, or occasionally as twins. But just because you’re only having one baby doesn’t mean it’s any easier: especially when your baby is really rather huge and has a lot of leg going on. When a cow gives birth her brain releases a flood of hormones that kick-start her mothering instinct – which is how even first-time mums know what to do. And what they’ll do immediately is turn into nature’s licking machines. Cows have long, strong, rough tongues and they use licking as a way of cleaning and drying the newborn, which stimulates breathing and circulation in the calf, as well as – most importantly – establishing the maternal bond. A cow and calf can readily identify each other by smell – even when they’re out in the field – and this connection is set and cemented by the bond that starts with licking. It’s hard work being a cow mum.
Because we know it’s hard work being a mum, at Pipers Farm we believe that lambs, piglets and calves should stay with the ewe, sow or cow for as long as possible. Mothers’ milk is the very best nutrition for any type of baby and we want all of our animals to have the best start in life – just as nature intended.