This year had two big questions that the lambing window would answer.
Firstly, after the loss of our senior tup, Big Boy, how would Viking perform on his own, trying to cover 22 ewes in just a week?
Then, secondly, since we decided to let the ewes lamb outside, rather than bringing them all into a pen in the polytunnel, how would they go on and would we manage if there were issues?
The short answer is ... fine!
But before we got to the good bit there was some late drama with Celestial.
Twin lamb disease
Just under three weeks before we were due to start lambing we noticed that Celestial wasn't as bothered about ewe nuts at the morning check. But once the others had finished she set off with them, up into the Quarry, so we just made a note to keep an eye on her.
Late morning there was an opportunity to take another look - she was no longer with the flock, which is very unusual for sheep. After a lot of searching she was found, laid up on the back of one of the rocky crags, looking out across the valley. From a distance she just looked to be resting but we already knew there was something amiss. Approaching her she didn't make much attempt to run off, which is very unlike her, and when she did finally decide to try she couldn't stand properly.
Getting her back to somewhere to have a closer look was a job in itself as she had to be carried down the steep slopes and balanced in the footwell of the quad, but she had no energy to fight. It was hard to work out what the problem was to begin with but we ran through a set of checks and narrowed it down to hypocalcaemia or twin lamb disease. Luckily we're prepared and had a bottle of calcium injection and some twin lamb drench in the medicines cupboard. Despite this, we'd never had to use either. She was very reluctant to take the drench but we eventually got this down her using multiple squirts from the drenching gun. The calcium injection was another new skill acquired, giving large volumes subcutaneously. As the day wore on it became clear from her developing symptoms (and the lack of a miraculous response to the calcium) that it was twin lamb disease. This wasn't good news, as the prognosis for the ewe is poor and even worse for the lambs she is carrying. We managed to speak to the vet who said we were doing all we could, to continue to monitor and repeat the treatment the next morning.
Those doses were given but she was still showing no signs of being interested in food beyond a brief nibble. The problem in twin lamb disease is that the energy demands of the growing lambs outstrip what the ewe can provide. This can just be due to their rapid growth later in pregnancy or it can be precipitated by some additional stress. Unless Celestial started eating enough to provide that energy she would continue to metabolise her fat reserves and increase the levels of ketones that were poisoning her. Yet by lunchtime she seemed more active and was obviously desperate to get back out with the rest of the flock - standing with her feet up on the side of the pen and bleating.
We took a chance and let her out - if it was her last wish then so be it. But perhaps this was the impetus she needed to live and over the coming days she gradually started to eat better and by the end of the week was back to her normal self, butting away any other sheep that tried to snaffle the nuts she was eating. We monitored closely for the remainder of her pregnancy but didn't see any sign that the lambs had died or been aborted. Yet we weren't really holding out hope - not losing her was success enough.
So, why did it happen? A day or so later a neighbour mentioned that they had seen some people walking through some of our fields with a loose dog the day before Celestial became ill. The fields they were in do not have any public footpaths and the only access would have meant climbing walls or gates. This loose dog could well have been enough to stress the flock and precipitated Celestial's illness. As our oldest ewe she would potentially be most at risk. The sheer irresponsibility of some people is staggering at times. But then they probably had no idea at all of the risk they were creating and how their actions very nearly cost Celestial her life.
Last autumn we inserted a CIDR into each ewe, which releases a hormone that prevents ovulation. When it is removed this triggers the cycle and so you can synchronise a group of ewes. As we both work full-time, compressing the lambing period into a week or two is hugely helpful as it means we can arrange leave and be on hand, reducing the risk of losses and improving welfare.
But with just one tup we couldn't remove all the CIDRs at once - ewes are only in season for perhaps 36 hours and as young and vigorous as Viking is, there's no way he'd get round 22 in that time. So we removed them in stages - four each day over the course of about a week. Each day we noted down which ewes had been marked by the orange raddle on Viking's chest. By the end of the week all the ewes were marked and we had a long wait to see whether they had all held to the first service.
We needn't have worried at all. Lambing lasted 7 days and 5 hours from first lamb to last. The hours of sleep gained by not having to continue multiple checks through the night for another week were invaluable!
The armbands come off
Lambing inside has been more about us, as inexperienced shepherds, than it has about any need for the ewes to be under cover. Our sheep are hardy and, so long as they can find a spot out of the wind, will lamb without issue in fairly extreme conditions. However, trying to get a closer look, or assist if necessary, is much easier if it occurs in an enclosed pen, with the potential for light, kit to hand and without the weather adding to the challenge.
As our confidence has grown - not just in the sheep, but in our own abilities - we are starting a journey to let the ewes choose where they give birth. Although they have never seemed stressed being inside before, watching them select a spot against a wall or tucked in some rushes revealed how important this seems to them. Although based on very limited numbers, it also felt like we intervened less often - generally finding a ewe licking lambs dry rather than watching through the whole labour.
Just one needed a hand, and that, again, could have been more about the shepherd than the ewe. At the 1am check one night Hadrea was found in the later stages of labour, with both front feet and the tip of a nose visible at her vulva each time she stood to turn around. How long she had been pushing for was unknown, but twenty minutes later she hadn't made any progress and was looking tired - the pushes were further apart and seemed weaker. The temperature was below zero with the windchill - not good to be hanging about.
Nothing more than easing forward the legs and gently helping the head out (with some rather prominent horn buds that were causing the issue) was needed, she delivered the rest with a final push on her own. Probably... maybe... she would have been fine if left on her own, but in the middle of the night a definite live lamb is much preferable to the chance of a dead one in an hour.
We lost one lamb, Isadora's gimmer, that we found dead while she was busy licking the twin brother dry. The lamb was fully developed and licked clean so we can only presume it was either born breech or perhaps in the bag, and drowned before the ewe could get it cleaned up. Despite this, this rate of loss is the lowest of the last three years.
By 10 days all 22 ewes and 36 lambs (164%) were out in the field and doing fine.
And what about Celestial, after her near death experience?
She delivered her lambs pretty much on time and had a pair of healthy gimmers. We hadn't been expecting anything good after the episode of twin lamb disease she suffered, so this was a lovely surprise and just goes to show how resilient Hebridean sheep are!