March 18, 2014

BRING ON THE LAMBS

It’s mid-March and I couldn’t watch the days slip by without writing a blog about lambing, a period in the agricultural calendar when both young and old engage with food and farming.  In fact, lambing is the first time many people ever experience anything to do with agriculture. It was for me.

If lambs are so great – I hope no one is arguing with this fact – then why don’t farmers have them running round all year, gambolling around fields and leaving countless smiles in their wake?  The answer: it’s all down to day length, farmers don’t have much choice.

As the autumn deepens, winter approaches and the days shorten, female sheep (ewes) begin ovulating.  The decreasing amount of daylight entering the ewe’s eye affects the brain and in turn the release of precursor chemicals and hormones.  Each ovulation takes seventeen days and during each cycle the ewe is only receptive to the ram for 24-36 hours.  The ewe will continue to ovulate until conception or until the days lengthen again in the spring.

One hundred and forty seven days later and a lamb or two will appear. Some sheep will often have three or more rarely four lambs – five and six have been known too. However as a ewe only has a pair of teats two is the most desirable number of offspring.

*nota bene: At this point I should make it clear that what’s written so far isn’t completely true.  There are two breeds of sheep in the UK: Portland and Dorset Horn that can conceive all year round.  However, there are only 900-1,500 and 1,500-3,000 registered breeding females in the UK for each breed respectively.  Therefore, unless you’re lucky you won’t see many non-spring lambs.
**nota bene: At this point I should make it clear that the disclaimer above isn’t completely true…  There are some more breeds of sheep similar to Portlands and Dorset Horns that aren’t seasonal – there’s even fewer, if none at all, of these in ‘ol Blighty.
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Farmers use non-permanent markers to number the ewes and their corresponding lambs so that mix ups and issues can be rectified, hence the massive blue number one on the ewe.

Let’s get back to the mainstream.

The United Kingdom plays a fantastic ace card in regards to lamb supply for consumers: British lamb is never out of season. Thank goodness for that! (#phew)

Due to our climate, farmers are able to have ewes give birth to lambs from November and December in the ‘deep south’ right through to May and June in the far north in Scotland.  Depending on the breed, sheep take around four to eight months to reach a size where they’re ready to be sent to the butcher and are still classed as lamb until they’re up to a year old.

It’s the perfect mix: fantastically wacky weather, different breeds, thousands of farmers and varied growth rates means that perfect BRITISH lamb is always only a butcher’s shop away whatever the weather or time of year.  If you’re told otherwise, you’re being lied to.

The Rare Breeds Survival Trust was established by Adam Henson’s father, Joe, in the 1970’s and does fantastic work at preserving our traditional sheep breeds – if you want to know more it’s well worth checking out their website. Open Farm Sunday is run by LEAF and is a good chance to get the whole family out to your nearest open farm. A good few farms often have some sheep give birth around then so you might be lucky enough to see a lamb or two.

Whatever you do end up doing – go for a walk in the countryside, please stick to the footpaths and keep dogs on a lead around livestock, and you’ll soon see one of farming’s most iconic animals at its most iconic time of year.

Have fun! GB

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