Every year, Christmas comes and goes and its departure inspires a sense that spring must be just around the corner. A sense that is almost instantly deflated by the arrival of grim January, with bleak February snapping hard on its heels. This year has been no different. January at least had the decency to be cold for the most part, though rolling fog and clammy drizzle have seen out its final week. Not ideal weather for lambing, and that time is once again in full swing.
Nothing gladdens the heart more than seeing the fields fill up with new arrivals. As the daffodils start to pop up on Devon’s roadside banks, lamb numbers increase steadily through January and February, peaking in March and April. Of course, the intrepid have been lambing since November, with a keen eye on April’s Easter market when eating lamb is at its most traditional.
For sheep farmers, having lambs come in one concentrated block is a blessing and a curse. It means it’s all out of the way in a fairly short time, but during that short time it’s nothing less than full on. Resources and space are stretched to the limit and the only guarantee you have is you can plan as much as you like, but the ewes will march to the beat of their own drum. Lambing is a round-the-clock occupation that’s never short of surprises – both uplifting and heartbreaking. The weather can be with you or decidedly against you: dry and sunny conditions mean ewes and lambs can be out of the lambing shed and into the fresh air quickly, minimising the risk of infections. But cold and wet conditions are the enemy of lambs, born with very little fleece and reliant on their mums for shelter.
In an ideal world every ewe would have two lambs – she has two teats, so two lambs make the most of her milk. One lamb can result in wasted milk and uneven suckling can lead to mastitis (an infection of the udder). Three or even four lambs from one ewe are not uncommon, but being pursued by three lambs can be exhausting for the mother and most often results in one lamb that’s weaker than the others. So most shepherds will attempt to foster triplet or quad lambs onto a ewe who has a single or who has lost her lambs. This demands patience when time is in short supply and also requires both the ewe and the lamb to be cooperative. Unfortunately, cooperation isn’t a common ovine trait.
Orphan lambs result when a ewe has died, the lamb has refused to suck from the udder (frustratingly not unknown) or there are just too many lambs and too few ewes. Adorable though they may be, lambs that need to be bottle-fed are time consuming, so this task often falls to the younger members of the family. There’s also a brisk trade at livestock markets for orphans – either to be put onto ewes who’ve lost lambs, to form the basis of new small flocks (especially for young farmers), or as pets who mow the lawn.
At Pipers, our Suffolk-cross lambs are born either in January or March. We don’t hurry ours along to catch Easter – we let them run with their mothers for five months, drinking milk for as long as possible, building strong immune systems and developing robust muscles and skeletons. Once weaned, our lambs grow slowly, grazing on a natural diet of forage, without any additional concentrated food or cereals to bulk them out. The youngest of our lambs will be slaughtered at 8 months, meaning the meat we produce at Pipers is packed with the distinctive flavour for which lamb is known. Because we genuinely believe that lamb should be a rich, deeply flavoured meat, allowed to grow to maturity at a natural rate. When you taste our lamb, we hope you agree.