A useful service to sheep farmers and a healthy additional income

Robert Garth is around sheep nearly every hour of the day at this time of year. He's a sheep scanner and his role is to let other sheep farmers know how many lambs each ewe is carrying.

"There are still a number of sheep farmers who don't get their flocks scanned, but it is becoming more and more popular," he says. "I started 11 years ago. Ewes generally carry either one or two lambs and although everyone's aims vary sheep farmers are usually looking for 1.7 lambs per ewe, although it depends on the breed." Robert's scanning business provides a healthy additional income to the farm. He farms with his brother Simon and his mum and dad Jennifer and James at Keasden, near Clapham.

When I caught up with Robert he was scanning inside a barn at Hull House Farm, near Hellifield. This is a rare treat as he usually has to set up in a field. His working quarters are a metal crate, a driver's seat, a TV screen, a probe and some lubricants.

He climbs into the crate and seats himself in a similar position to a Formula 1 racing driver. "It has been called all sorts. A scanning box, a tardis, a cubicle, but it serves its purpose for me. I originally started off with a crate and a tent over the top, but the whole thing was flapping in the wind when I was in the middle of a field. I use a probe which goes on the bit of skin with no wool on it between the ewe's back legs. You put gel on it, just like the lube used in hospital. The lube goes on the skin, the probe goes on to the top of the skin and the ultrasound goes inside between 20-25cms. I then move it from front to back through the uterus to see the little embryos. The ultrasound picks up the image and bounces it back to the screen in front of me.

"You have to be checking ewes around the 70 day mark. They generally carry for around 147 days. If you leave it too long after the 70 day mark it becomes difficult because the lambs inside are growing and they can hide behind each other."

Robert scans over 100,000 ewes between December and February and up to 2000 a day starting this week and has steadfast help from his fiance Kelly Armitage. She has been on the road with Robert for the past three lambing seasons. "It's two solid months of 6.30 in the morning starts and freezing cold weather, but we get the job done," says Kelly. "It fits in well for me because it's at a time when Skipton Auction Market, where I work, is a little quieter. We mark the sheep with a single spray mark on the shoulder of those with one lamb and a spray mark on the bum for those carrying three.

"We don't put a mark at all on those with two. Every farmer has his own system for spray marking his flock. Some farmers use red for those ewes carrying one lamb, green and yellow for twos and threes, but really there is no hard and fast system. That's why we have so many different colours. When we spray mark them we tend to use purple, purely because not a lot of farmers use that colour."

Robert has 1,000 sheep on the family farm, where they also run a 60-strong beef herd. "We have 60 pure Texels and Beltex, 400 Swaledales with quite a few crossed with the Blue Faced Leicester to breed Mules, and another 350 Beltex X Texels in order to breed fat lambs." Livestock shows are a passion for both Robert and Kelly and last summer saw one of their most successful seasons yet.

CW 1/1/11