When the lambs leave

I’ve been asked about this many times, and I’ve finally been prompted to write about it after I was asked again via Twitter.

So here goes. I’ve had many people say to me over the past few years ‘but how can you possibly love your lambs when all you’re going to do is kill them’. And I guess it’s a pretty valid question, because it does seem completely absurd. We get so excited to see what this year’s lambs will be like, and we take photos and we say how proud we are that they look good, and grow fast (‘fast’ being a few months, not weeks, as anti-farming organisations would have you believe!) and then we send them off. Either sell them live weight at market, or dead weight directly to the abattoir. But we all know what’s going to happen to them.

And I think the reason loading lambs to take to slaughter doesn’t affect the majority of us is because the inevitability is something we are used to. As a farmer, you don’t breed sheep, or any kind of livestock, because you want to keep every single one of them alive for as long as you can, otherwise there’d be no point in trying to farm. Of course you might keep the odd one, some farmers breed all their own stock, but they still have animals born that won’t fit with their desired flock or herd characteristics, and these animals will be sold. It’s just the way farming works, and I know it seems uncaring and harsh to a lot of people, but that’s why farming isn’t the right job for a lot of people.

I was asked specifically about the day the lambs leave, and to be honest, harsh as it may seem, it really isn’t that different to any other day in my opinion. When The Boss’ lambs go to market, we can spend nearly a whole day rounding them up, weighing them, drafting off the ones that are the right weight, tagging their ears with the electronic tags required and moving them to a separate field ready for loading in the morning to go to market. This can be done every week or every fortnight, depending on the amount of lambs you have and how far into the season it is.

It is a bit different with my own sheep, I’ll admit, because yes, I’m very proud of my lambs, and I don’t have many so I do ‘get to know them’, but farming is a business. And a lot of people forget that. Ultimately, I need my lambs to make a good price at market so I can keep expanding my business. So I can keep buying sheep, developing my blood lines, increasing the flock and buying new kit to make handling more sheep easier and quicker. It’s all part of the business.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I don’t think you can be any kind of livestock farmer without compassion and emotional investment in your animals. But emotional investment can come in different forms, and respect for your animals is crucial. Good farmers respect their animals, treat them with compassion, and give them the best life they can, while they can.

A good farmer has a lot of respect, appreciation for and pride in their stock, but a good farmer has to be a good business person too, and that involves selling your produce at the highest price you can. You can’t afford to be sentimental and keep animals that aren’t going to contribute something to your flock or herd. I think I’d be lying if I said that farmers get upset when their animals are sold, I think the most accurate way to describe it would be…indifferent? Maybe that’s too negative, but I’m struggling to find a word that describes the feeling of no feeling, without it sounding uncaring.

So this might not be the most helpful answer, or the answer that you all wanted, but what I’m trying to highlight is the inevitability of it all, no farmer ever expects to keep all the animals born on their farm, so there aren’t really any overwhelming emotions on the day when they are sold. I think the public see a lack of sentimentality as an example of how ‘cruel’ and ‘evil’ farming is, but those people don’t consider that farming is, at the end of the day, a business.


I believe pride in your stock is a vital aspect of being a successful farmer.


This is the size that lambs go to market at (40kg), not a few weeks old!


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

I don’t know if Charles Dickens had ever been lambing, but he’s definitely hit the nail on the head here. I don’t think you’d find a sheep farmer that could say lambing is ever the best of times, or ever the worst of times. Extreme fluctuations between the two might be a more fitting analysis.

So if it isn’t the best of times, why do we look forward to it so much? With the days slowly (really bloody slowly) sliding by as this uni term approaches its end, I’m not going a day without thinking about the next month of being elbow deep in a ewes nether regions. Lambing for me is as exciting as it is nerve wrecking. Of course when you’re doing something you’re passionate about, you’re emotionally invested in the outcome. I don’t think there’s a single person who’s lambed who hasn’t had a favourite ewe, a favourite pet lamb, that one animal they really want to see do well. Because as much as the anti-farming lot would argue this fact, I do not think you can be any kind of livestock farmer without compassion and emotional investment in your animals. So when the next crop of your animals is being born, you’re excited to see what’s going to emerge. You’ve looked after the mother, fed them, vaccinated them, seen them grow, invested time and money in them, and now you get to see what they can produce for you. Think about that and tell me that isn’t sort of amazing.

I’m excited to spend every day in the countryside I know and absolutely love. In the fields, working until I’m exhausted. There’s something about coming home and setting like a rock when you sit down for too long that is almost addictive. Through the aching muscles, sore shoulders and arms, tired legs and dry hands, it’s satisfying to know you’ve pushed your body physically and mentally that day. At lambing you get to see the immediate rewards of that hard work, and I think that’s maybe why *most* farmers would tell you how much they look forward to lambing time.

Lambing can also be the worst of times. That feeling of exhaustion at the end of the day doesn’t go away overnight. Especially when you’re waking up worrying about that ewe you left with her small lamb, you can hear the rain lashing against the windows and you’re anxious about what will be in the field when you go out the next morning. Not to mention the vast majority of farmers that physically get out of their bed, don their waterproofs, and go out to check their stock at 2am. Days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months. Being physically and emotionally exhausted for that length of time drives you crazy. Mistakes happen. You’ll lose a lamb that you know needed checking if you’d just had the time and energy to make the effort. You blame yourself, you blame your colleagues, you blame your dog, you blame the weather and the short hours of sunlight and the lack of sugar in your tea.  I’d be lying if I said I haven’t sobbed angrily at a particularly stupid ewe who wouldn’t follow her lamb onto the trailer. I’d be lying if I said I’ve never rested my head on the soft, greasy wool of a ewes side after finally catching her in the driving rain and wind, silently gathering the strength to put my hand in, and praying I find two front legs and a head. I can’t quantify the amount of internal dialogue I’ve had inside my head, arguing with myself over whether I’ve got the strength to pull this lamb out of a particularly tight ewe (yes, that is a thing!).

But there it is, the hard work and the determination and the never-ending cups of tea pay off. Because suddenly lambing stops as quickly as it started, and you don’t know what to do with yourself apart from look at your ewes and lambs, watch them graze and grow and jump around like, well, spring lambs. And you can be safe in the knowledge you worked damned hard to have this moment watching your stock flourish. And then it’s on to the next job, because we all know farming never stops for long!