Walking towards the old barns at Ivory Farm in the lee of the steep escarpment of Beacon Hill, I first hear the ewes and lambs before, drawing closer, there is the familiar earthy smell of haylage, straw and sheep – magic, the promise of tiny white bundles of legs and black spotted heads. March at Highclere is lambing season. Lauren our shepherdess spent earlier weeks with Simon and the farm team cleaning out the barns and setting up the pens for the rotation in and out of the 1,700 ewes. Ably abetted by Hannah from Cumbria and with rostered extra help, Lauren undoubtedly has a busy month ahead.
The gestation time for a ewe is five months and so we put the rams in with groups of ewes in sequence to create some semblance of planning and therefore to spread lambing over a number of weeks. The first ewes come into outside sheds before coming into the barns to lamb.
A few days after that, they go back to the outside shed as a sort of transition before being put out into the more sheltered fields in the park. About 340 ewes have already lambed although the challenge of the bitter March weather makes it seem an endless and currently exhausting cycle. They can’t be put out at the moment which requires more ingenious use of barn space and providing shelter from winds with straw bales.
Geordie and I have been going down to the lambing sheds during the day and then Saturday evening found us there from midnight onward, and again on Sunday night for a couple more hours aiding and abetting efforts to keep the water topped up, the ewes fed and enough straw around their pens to help the lambs survive the freezing temperatures. I look for glacial eddies of wind and try to block them with straw and then bottle feed five lambs which I always enjoy. My husband was doing the water, carrying endless buckets around with Lauren et al checking for newborns and ones that sadly had just not made it in this weather, always such a sad sight. I don’t suppose this process has changed over hundreds of year and is both exciting and exhausting, depending on the time of day and the hours of sleep.
Sheep have been a valued part of the landscape here for well over a thousand years. Early 8th century charters mention sheep “dells” – sheltered areas good for grazing – whilst, on a larger scale, sheep contributed a third of England’s export revenues in the 13th and 14th centuries. In today’s world they need to be economically viable which is without doubt cyclical (I am still waiting for the upswing!) but they also form part of the stewardship of the landscape on the chalk downlands which we have here at Highclere. The nature of their grazing forms part of a complex relationship allowing grasses and other plants to thrive which in turn provide a home and feeding conditions for birds, butterflies, moths, and many insects. Is it a question of what is “natural” or is it, in some ways perhaps, simply what we are used to. Whichever, if there is no income, then land becomes abandoned and easily reverts to scrub bramble and pockets of afforestation.
I hope this weather cycle lifts soon so that the ewes and lambs can graze the park grass, eating it down and acting as fertilisers. Hopefully the lambs will grow ever stronger, playing chase and tag over old logs and tree stumps and providing all of us here with hours of entertainment. There is always something so uplifting about watching them gambol around.