Monday, 26 February 2007

Down to the Nitty Gritty.

Before starting this post I want to answer a question by Liz Fenwick I had no farming experience before moving to France neither did the OH, we were both complete novices and have learnt as we have gone along.

I want to describe lambing 2002/3, it was the most ewes we ever lambed and shows clearly the highs and lows of being a shepherd. The ewes were due to start lambing at the beginning of March so preparation starts 6 weeks before.

First task is to split the 100 ewes into three groups, the first group will start lambing first, the second group approx. 4 weeks after the first group and the final group are the late lambers and the ewes that probably won't lamb. We have to split them up because we don't have enough buildings to bring all the ewes in at once. Anyway lets go back to the beginning, we start feeding group 1 in mid Feb. week 1: 100gms of sheep pellets per ewe, by week 6 just before they are due to lamb they are on 600 gms each, split into two feeds. So for 30 ewes that is 16 kgs per day,plus the other 2 groups are also being fed. By the time we are well into lambing we are getting through in excess of 50 kgs of pellets per day. And it all has to be carried in buckets to the fields where the sheep are.

We found out early on that sheep will kill for pellets so we had devised a system of feeding areas that kept the sheep out until we had put the feed in the troughs. It was the only way to avoid being trampled to death!!!! Many times I would be filling a trough only to find myself with a large ewe pushing through my legs to get at the pellets, not a pleasant experience, and really quite dangerous. We also came up with systems for feeding the ewes in the buildings, we had to be inventive as none of our buildings were purpose built for lambing so we got very good at improvising.

Okay back to the preparations, three weeks before they are due to lamb all the ewes have to be vaccinated, this is basically to protect the lambs from a variety of serious diseases. For this we have to bring them into a building, the OH has to catch each ewe and I give her an injection under the skin of the front leg. This has to be done for all the ewes and its pretty tiring and tough on the back.

One week to go and I check out my lambing kit. See picture.
Five days to go and we start bringing the first group of ewes in at night. They are out in the fields during the day but come in each night. Three days to go and the 3a.m. checks on the ewes starts. From now on we will be checking the ewes every 2/3 hours during the day and every 3/4 hours during the night.We were once told by a French sheepfarmer that there was no need to check the ewes at night because they didn't lamb then, unfortunately no-one told our ewes, so we continued to check and saved many lambs by doing so!!!

One of the problems you have to be on the lookout for as the ewes get bigger are vaginal prolapses, because the lambs are taking up so much room in the uterus sometimes a part of the vagina is forced out, it looks like a pinkish lump about the size of a grapefruit. If it's not dealt with the ewe cannot wee and she may rub it and damage the vagina it is therefore dangerous if left too long. The procedure is, first catch your ewe[not always easy!] then the OH upends the ewe so that her back legs are up in the air, he hangs on to her[not always easy!] while I clean the protuding vagina with an antiseptic wash, lubricate it with the lubricating gel then gently push it back into place. A vaginal support commonly known as a "spoon" is then inserted [the red object in the photo] and the flat tongue goes into the ewes vagina with a gentle twisting movement. This spoon stays in until the ewe lambs and although they can lamb through the spoon it is better to remove it just before the lamb is born if possible, so we keep a special eye on the ewes with spoons. We usually have two or three prolapses each lambing and have always delivered the lambs without trouble. The ewes don't seem to suffer any adverse reaction either.

Next post : we start lambing with a disaster!!!!!!

Friday, 23 February 2007

Phones and Moans.

I was going to write about another topic today but I just have to get this moan off my chest. I love this country but sometimes the laissez-faire attitude to Customer Service [or lack of it] can drive you to distraction.

Last Wednesday evening we realized that our phoneline was out. The next morning after checking that the actual phones were okay I phoned France Telecom. We have a mobile but it's only for emergencies as the signal in the house is very poor so you have to stand outside to get a reliable signal. For this reason we have a minimun "abonnement" which gives us 10 minutes of free calls each month, if we use more than that the calls are VERY expensive!!!! I explained the problem and was told that no-one could call that day but it would be on the Friday. So we stayed in all day Friday but?????? yes you guessed it no-one came. I phoned on Saturday morning and got a text message to my mobile that the line had been repaired. Of course I rushed back indoors to try the phone NOTHING!!!!!!! So back outside and phone again, now if you call from a landline it's a free call but if it's a mobile there is a charge. And like any other company a lot of it is automated, press this no. put in your no. etc etc, then you wait to speak to a human. And you wait and you wait and you wait. The OH bought me a chair and a cup of tea and was on hand with an umbrella as it was threatening to rain. FINALLY I talk to someone.
He thinks the line has been re-established aswell. I have to convince him that it's still not working, and that no-one came the previous day. I ask, can a technician call today? Oh dear me no it's Saturday. He makes an appointment for 8.30 a.m. Monday morning. Fine, we've got friends round for a meal on Sunday evening but hey I can do it.

Late to bed Sunday but I'm up at 8 the next morning, the chap finally arrives at about ELEVEN!!!! Okay never mind now we can have our phone back [oh and the internet has been playing up aswell] He's as miserable as sin and he can't fix the problem, he will be back next morning with the part he needs.

Tuesday morning he comes back with the part but it still doesn't fix the problem, he will have to call out a specialist team to check the line. Okay when will they come? He doesn't know but it won't be that day. So we have to stay in on the off chance that they might turn up!!!! He tells us not to worry the line will be fixed as if that should be enough to placate us. We have already been without a phone for FIVE DAYS!!!!

Wednesday morning at about 9.30 the dogs are making a noise, the OH goes outside to investigate and finds a Telecom truck STUCK in the grass verge. We have a concrete turning area but they had decided to do a three point turn in the road and were stuck. So OH has to get the tractor and pull them out!!! But they are very friendly and say that the line should be okay now, they had found a break and mended it, They were just off to check further up the road and would phone to verify the line.

We went indoors and the phone worked for about FIVE MINUTES then it went off again.!!! The OH decided to drive up the lane to find the Telecom truck, he found them halfway to the village working on what was apparently a fuse box. A fuse had blown aswell as the other problems, is this unusual the OH asks them. OH NO they say the CHASSE [HUNT] often shoot out the lines or fuses. Only slightly worrying if you think that the lines all run alongside the road!!!!!

Nevermind we have the phone back and the internet connection seems to back to normal. Now all I have to do is have a good moan at France Telecom about their appalling service, although I know from past experience that it's like water off a CANARD'S BACK.

Well I feel better for getting that off my chest, back to normal service for the next post, unless someone else annoy's me.

Friday, 16 February 2007

Counting sheep and lambs ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ!!!!!

I thought I would just explain how the number of ewes, and hence lambs, has increased over the years.

In 1995 we had 8 ewes they had 9 live lambs and lambing was spread over 3 weeks.
In 1996 we kept all the ewe lambs [agnelles] so we had 12 ewes and they had 19 live lambs.
In 1997 we had 11 ewes [one had gone for reform i.e. slaughter] and they had 19 live lambs.
In 1998 we had 24 ewes of which 18 lambed and they had 31 live lambs.
In 1999 we had 32 ewes they all lambed and they had 49 live lambs.
In 2000 we had 55 ewes of which 53 lambed and they had 86 live lambs.
In 2001 we had 85 ewes of which 62 lambed and they had 108 live lambs.
In 2002 we had 100 ewes of which 74 lambed and they had 114 live lambs.
In 2003 we had 100 ewes of which 85 lambed and they had 133 live lambs.
In 2004 we had 87 ewes of which 65 lambed and they had 106 live lambs.
In 2005 we had 73 ewes of which 52 lambed and they had 98 live lambs.

After the first year our lambing percentages have been between 1.6 and 1.7, that is live lambs per ewe which is good, and it remained high even as ewe numbers increased because we worked harder spending long hours to ensure the lambs had the best possible chance of survival. I will do much more about lambing in later posts, this is just to give an idea of how we evolved over the years.

Our first lambing was spread over 3 weeks, by the time we got to 2003 with 85 ewes lambing it was over 10 weeks. This may not sound excessive but the ewes were checked regularly every few hours throughout the day and night. The OH would get up at 3 a.m. and if a ewe was lambing then I would get up to deal with the ewe and lambs. This meant that we had very little sleep for weeks on end, and would be working very long days aswell. I will describe a typical day during lambing in another post.

In 2005 we decided that with lambing figures of 1.9 live lambs per ewe we should quit while we were on top. We still have the ewes but we have not lambed since then.

Friday, 9 February 2007

Meet Norah Batty

Back to the first lambing. After the awful experience of losing our first lamb I had to hope that it could only get better. The second ewe Number two [Iknow, but the names do get better] had twin lambs without any problems.

The book said that we needed to provide Bonding Pens for the ewes and their lambs, small pens to allow the ewe and lamb to get to know each other, where they stay for 24/48 hours, and it allows you to make sure that the lamb is feeding okay.

The book said we could make temporary pens using straw bales, so this is what we did making the pen in an open fronted garage next to the paddock where we had the ewes overnight. We carried the twin lambs to the pen with Mum following behind, placed them in the pen and pulled the bales across the front of the pen. Unfortunately Number two had not read the book, she jumped straight out of the pen knocking the bales down at the same time and took off with her lambs back to the other ewes in the Paddock!!!! We left her to bond in her own way which she did. In fact we managed without bonding pens for those first lambs, with such small numbers you only need them if you have problems with either ewe or lamb. For subsequent lambings we constructed more permanent pens. I think the book had been written for well behaved English sheep not their more bolshie Gallic cousins!!!!

Now to meet Norah Batty. The third ewe to lamb was in the middle of the night. We were out in the Paddock and not for the first or last time with a torch in one hand and the book in the other. The lamb was presented with the Head and one leg. The book says to try and find the other leg but the lamb can be delivered with just the one leg. I tried to find the other leg but with my very limited knowledge I couldn't bring it forward. So we decided to deliver it as it was. It never ceases to amaze me the force you can apply to a lamb or ewe without causing any damage. The ewe could not deliver the lamb hersalf so we had to get it out before it died. I used all my strength but it was not enough, so the OH applied himself to the lamb while I held onto the ewe. Eventually with a satisfying plop the lamb came out, she was a big lamb with very wrinkly legs hence her name, Nora Batty was born and she is still with us . Unfortunately her mother Mrs. Batty had problems in later life and is in the big pasture in the sky.

We had one other set of twins that lambing and they were a right pair of bruisers, two males that we called the Kray twins so obviously the ewe became Mrs. Kray and she is still with us aswell.

The other ewes lambed with very little help from us and from the 8 ewes we had a total of 9 live lambs. Some of the ewes were already becoming characters, and of the original 8 ewes we still have 3 of them [Number one, Number two and Mrs Kray] plus of course Norah Batty. They are living a peaceful retirement after very faithful service.

My career as a shepherd had started and I was already hooked.

Thursday, 8 February 2007


Last night it was quite stormy here and it reminded me of January 2003. Our house is situated on the side of a valley, facing South. Normally the weather crosses the valley from right to left and you can stand in front of the house and watch the wind and rain raging through the valley but around the house it's quite calm. Obviously whoever built this property [a long time ago] knew exactly where to site it for maximum protection. Even during the Great Storm which wreaked havoc throughout France in December 1999 left us unscathed, just a few trees down in the wood. We didn't even lose our electricity even though most of the area was without it for days. So we always felt safe from the storms that hit from time to time, that was until 2003. It was quite windy but nothing exceptional, we had just finished the evening chores all the animals had been fed and checked and we had gone back indoors for a cup of tea. We were in the kitchen when there was a noise like the blasting you might hear from a quarry except that it was very close.

We rushed outside and went round to the back of the house where we thought the noise had come from. OMG The roof of our three bay barn [300 m.sq. of iron girders and fibro-cement corrugated sheets] lifted up and deposited on the back drive!!!!!!

It was a scene of devestation, the corrugated sheets were in thousands of pieces all over the place, the steel girders were twisted as if by a giant hand, but WE WERE SO LUCKY!! Only minutes before we had been walking along the back drive. We sometimes leave a tractor or car there but not that day. There was only minor damage to our house roof , another foot or so and the roof would have been destroyed. We use the three bay during lambing but we hadn't started. We just stood there in complete amazement at the force of the wind that had lifted off the roof and so thankful that the damage was limited to the barn.

We learnt the following day that it had been a mini TORNADO that had struck our normally sheltered farm. The damage was covered by our insurance and we soon had a new roof on the barn, but it has left a lasting impression as to the immense power of nature. We still feel safe though because the chances of another tornado are incredibly small so I lay in bed last night listening to the wind roaring in the valley snuggled under the duvet and fell asleep.

Monday, 5 February 2007

First lambing Oh My!!!!!!!

In February 1995 we were preparing for the first lambs, I am not sure if I have mentionned this before but we were not farmers before moving to France so this was a whole new experience and pretty scary. I had read the book from cover to cover and we had bought another one which went into a lot more detail about lambing including some fairly gory photos of when things went wrong Yeuk!!!

The OH was in England on business and also doing a half day course at an Agricultural College on Lambing. He was due to return to France a couple of days before the first ewe was due to lamb. At that time we had decided to lamb outside just bringing the ewe and lamb in for a couple of days for "bonding", i.e. ensuring that the ewe and lamb recognised each other.

I was keeping a fairly close eye on the ewes even though they were not due for a week, the OH was set to return the next day with his newly learnt lambing knowledge. Taking a stroll amongst the ewes it was apparent that one of them had STARTED!!!!!!!!
Panic is an understatement. I went and phoned the OH, he told me to calm down everything would be fine, well it was alright for him he was in England and I was literally left holding the baby/lamb. I read the book again and it basically said not to panic either, the process of lambing can take several hours and it was best to leave the ewe alone and let her get on with it at her own pace. So I left her alone but obviously kept an eye on her, after several hours and several more phone calls to England I decided that I had to have a closer look to see if anything was happening. I managed to coax her into a small building and then I got the lubricating gel as I had to have a feel inside, I won't go into too much detail at this point. Luckily for me this ewe was being very well behaved she stood quietly while I did a quick feel.


It was a head only presentation, the lamb cannot be born like this, the head has to be pushed back into the uterus , then you have to find the front legs in order to deliver the lamb. On my own and as a complete novice this was beyond me. I rushed back indoors and phoned the farmer that we had bought the ewes from, explained as best I could the problem and not for the only time he dropped what he was doing and came straight over.

Unfortunately for the lamb it was too late, the ewe had been trying for too long,and the cord had come away so by the time the farmer delivered the poor little thing it was DEAD. The good news was that she had twins and he delivered the second lamb and it was fine. He checked that the ewe and lamb were okay then he left me to it.

I went indoors and burst into tears our first lamb and because of my ignorance it was dead. I then had a large glass of home made Cherry brandy before phoning the OH with the news.

It was not a good start but I consoled myself with the idea that things could only get better. We named the ewe Number One not very original I know but it just seemed right for her to be acknowledged in that way.

I had started learning the hard way that in looking after sheep you have to be able to cope with not always being able to save them and even when you do everything right there will be losses and if you can't accept that then you might aswell quit straight away.

I didn't quit then and I hope you will follow my progress from complete ignorance to a certain degree of competance. It took me ELEVEN YEARS but I am condensing it to one year. I could talk about my sheep non-stop but do realize that not everyone finds them quite so fascinating.
The photo was taken recently and is Number One confirming her position including bossing the Sheep dog Mist [more about her later]. Number One has been retired from lambing for the past few years and spends her days recounting past glories to the younger ewes. We have a very close relationship and have a little chat most days, she has never blamed me for the loss of her first lamb,but when she got the opportunity she bit the Farmer who had delivered it!!!!! I think he was more surprised than I was. Over the nine years that she lambed she had 4 lots of twins 4 lots of triplets and one set of QUADS!!!. And thanks to both our hard work they all survived apart from the first one. 24 lambs over 9 years I think she deserves her retirement. I shall write about some of the other ewes who are equally amazing in other posts.

Thursday, 1 February 2007

The First Woolly Jumpers!!!

In August 1994 thanks again to the Ladies at Travail Manuel , we met a local sheep farmer and bought our first sheep. As we had never kept sheep before it seemed wise to start small, so we settled on EIGHT ewe lambs [agnelles] they would have been about 8 months old when we collected them from the farm. Unfortunately I didn't take any photos of them at the time but you will meet them all eventually. We had already asked the farmer for as much info as possible on how to look after them, everything noted down in my notebook. Although I drew the line at bringing them into the house each night we did try and follow his other advice!!!!!!!!

One of the first tasks before they encountered the ram for the first time in their lives, after the hairdresser of course, was worming. This involves catching each ewe and forcing a liquid down her throat, preferably without choking her because it's gone down the wrong way!

SIMPLE you might think WRONG !!!!!!!
These ewes had not been handled and had no intention of starting then, we had to try and herd them into a small building and then chase around until we caught them. When you are not used to dealing with wild animals, oh and they were certainly very cross by the time we had finished with them, it took us a long time but eventually they had all been wormed. I think I probably had been aswell but it didn't seem to do me any harm, hmm well actually!!

Next job FLUSHING , by this time we had bought a book called "Sheep Keeping for Small Holders" now I know I'm only 5ft 1in but I thought that was a bit personal. Flushing involves extra feeding for the ewes for three weeks before the ram goes in and continues while he is with them.

As we only had 8 ewes we had borrowed a ram, he was actually called Snow White [Blanche Neige] !!! named by the farmers children or so he said!! He joined our little troupe on the 4th of November. Now to make it easier to know when the ewes are going to lamb the book recommended a harness for the ram, this has a "crayon" which marks each ewe as she is served by the ram. As we had never fitted one of these before we decided to find a model to try it out first, and not for the last time the OH was called on!!!!

It's at times like this that he is very relieved that we don't have any neighbours, otherwise he wouldn't have been able to show his face in the local bar. Well Snow White did his job with his 8 dwarves I mean ewes and went home, we then had approx. 147 days to wait for the proof of his endeavours.