Where to experience lambing in Hertfordshire
PUBLISHED: 11:14 20 March 2017 | UPDATED: 17:12 21 April 2017
The weather may still be cold and dreary but the start of lambing season is a sign that spring is on its way. Keri Jordan welcomes the woolly arrivals and looks at how the ancient art of shepherding is faring in the county
I enjoy glorious autumnal days when the trees are a riot of colour. I enjoy a bracing winter walk across frosty fields followed by a pub lunch next to a crackling log fire, I really do. I would simply like to enjoy them for a few weeks less each year.
Because for me, nothing compares to the budding promise of spring, when the first green shoots peek through the soil, colour slowly creeps into the garden and there’s the lure of longer, brighter and warmer days on the horizon. Then there’s revitilisation in the animal kingdom, with new life entering the world. So it’s with great excitement and anticipation every spring that I look forward to lambing season.
As usual, I’ll be one of the first in the flock heading to various lambing events occurring in the county. An opportunity to see a lamb being born and perhaps to bottle-feed a new arrival both indulges my love of animals and my desire to be at one with nature, and it seems I’m not the only one with a burgeoning fascination for farming at this time of year.
Andrew Wolfe, chief executive at Willows Activity Farm in London Colney, near St Albans, regularly sees between 15,000 and 18,000 visitors during its main lambing event. ‘People are becoming increasingly interested in farming and where their food comes from,’ he explains. ‘As we move towards living in more urban environments, it’s great that families are encouraging their children to learn about animals and the traditional practices of farming that have been around for centuries.’
According to Andrew, the volume of livestock in Hertfordshire is a fraction of what it would have been a century ago. The demand for land, coupled with the often stark economic realities of farming, has been responsible for the gradual demise of many of the mixed farming businesses that used to be the norm in the county. As a result, farms are progressively being amalgamated and used for other activities.
Andrew adds that it’s not all about money however – farms have an environmental and aesthetic value too.
‘While it’s obviously important for agricultural businesses to be commercially viable, we must also remember the important environmental role that farming and farmers play in shaping the landscapes that we all enjoy and value,’ he says.
At Willows, one of the many farms that has diversified – in it’s case as a centre for family activities – there is a flock of 400 sheep, which produces around 800 lambs each year. The lambs are spraypainted with a number for identification purposes and fitted with an ear tag, which stays with them for life. They are weaned from four to six-months and either go on to be breeding sheep or are reared for meat. The adult female sheep enjoy a restorative summer break to get back into top condition before the mating process starts over again.
Before artificial fertiliser became available, animals were vital to maintaining the health of soil for growing. The practice of ‘folding’, where sheep were grazed on root crops on arable land, allowed their dung to be ploughed into the soil in order to replenish nutrients taken up by crops. Lambing took place outside in the fields for this reason. However, pre and post-natal care is increasingly carried out in sheds and polytunnels to help protect the newborns from adverse weather conditions, supervise young lambs, and prevent predation (a small percentage of lambs are taken by foxes in the UK).
This crucial part of the farming calendar involves meticulous preparation and round-the-clock care when lambs are born. In autumn ewes and rams are mated – typically one ram can mate with between 40 and 60 ewes. Unlike other animals, ewes are only in season once a year, although there are some rare breeds that can reproduce year round.
The ewes are fed concentrated cereal for around six weeks before lambing to help provide them with the sustenance they need. It’s common practice for each ewe to have an ultrasound scan to determine how many lambs they are carrying. They are then fed accordingly, so that those carrying triplets for example, receive enough food to ensure that each lamb is born at a healthy weight, and those carrying a single lamb don’t put on too much weight. The gestation period for a sheep is around 147 days, and lambing season generally takes place from February to April.
A typical day in season starts around 5.30am when the shepherd commences his morning checks to make sure all new arrivals are doing well. They are placed in individual pens, given hay and water, and closely monitored to make sure they are up on their feet in a timely fashion and are drinking satisfactorily.
Around 6pm sees the start of the night shift when the process continues. It’s rare for pregnant ewes and newborn lambs to be left for more than a couple of hours at a time in their first few days together. Shortly after that they can be let out into the yard, and in a couple of weeks they are able to go into the field to graze, although they are still checked on and fed morning and evening.
Fresh spring grass contains lots of nutrients that help ewes produce milk for their young. This is typically supplemented with dry feed to boost milk production. Lambs can also be given additional grain for extra sustenance, which is known as creep feeding.
‘We try and get them out in the field as soon as possible because grass and fodder is better for them,’ explains Andrew Wolfe. ‘This has additional cost benefits because the less we need to supplement their food, the more commercially viable the process is. We always hope for a nice dry spring to make the grass grow quicker.’
A dry spring is also better for the animals, Andrew adds. ‘Sheep can cope with wet and cold weather but they don’t like both at the same time.’
It seems I have even more in common with these endearing animals than I thought. No wonder I have such an affinity with lambing season.
There are a number of farms and agricultural organisations in Hertfordshire that run family lambing events, see their websites for details
Willows Activity Farm
Coursers Road, London Colney AL4 0PF
St Albans Campus, Hatfield Road, St Albans AL4 0JA
Ardeley, nr Stevenage, SG2 7AH
London Road, Hertford SG13 7NT
Wilbury Road, Letchworth SG6 4JN