Julian Norton: The drama of lambing time

Lambing time is well and truly upon us in Thirsk. In fact, it has really been upon us since January. Located as we are, in the Vale of York but on the edge of the North York Moors, the practice looks after a mixture of upland and lowland flocks. Many of the lowland flocks have finished lambing already, but the upland farms are right in the middle of this, the busiest period of their farming year.

Lambing time is a busy period for Julian Norton and the vets of Skeldale Veterinary Centre in Thirsk.  Picture by James Hardisty.
Lambing time is a busy period for Julian Norton and the vets of Skeldale Veterinary Centre in Thirsk. Picture by James Hardisty.

For those that keep sheep, lambing time is concentrated over about a month and a half. During this period there is very little sleep for the shepherd, as every birth is supervised and each lamb nurtured to give it the best possible start. Since all our farms lamb their flocks at slightly different times, the vets at Skeldale have lambings and lambing related cases to deal with all the way through from the cold and dark of early January, to the warm spring days at the end of April. This is a good thing though, because we all like lambing sheep.

I was called out on Wednesday afternoon to see a ewe, on a farm just outside Kepwick, on the edge of the Hambleton Hills.

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“I can’t make nothing of her, Julian,” Arthur explained when I arrived.

“I’ve got the first one out, but I’m beggared if I can get the other one!”

This was very unusual, because as every experienced shepherd or veterinary surgeon knows, it is usually the first lamb that is the hardest to deliver. Nothing was ever straightforward though, when I came to see Arthur and his sheep.

Arthur was kicking himself when, after just a few minutes, the second healthy but meconium stained lamb was flapping its ears in the straw next to the first-born. The lamb’s head had been twisted back against its shoulder, rather than being lined up with its front feet, and Arthur had been trying to sort it out using his new plastic lambing aid.

“You’re better off just using you hands, Arthur!” I explained.

I could never make anything of these plastic lambing aids, and Arthur chucked his into the corner of the lambing shed in disgust.

The lambing had been simple enough, but Arthur was determined to get his money’s worth out of my visit. There was no chance I could unpeel my waterproof trousers and climb out of my wellies just yet!

“While you’re here, could you just have a quick look at this ewe?”

Often, the while-you’re-here jobs are more involved than the original emergency.

“She has a prolapse. Actually, I have two with prolapses. You’d better have a look at both of ‘em.”

Both sheep had yet to lamb and both had developed vaginal prolapses. These can be serious, but can often be managed with a simple device called a “retainer”. Another bit of plastic, this time shaped like a spoon, a retainer fits snuggly inside the vagina and is fastened in place using bailer twine, either tied to the adjacent fleece, or to a collar around the sheep’s neck. Both these prolapses however, were well and truly past the plastic spoon stage and certainly in need of some veterinary intervention. Half an hour later, both were replaced and the outlook for the two ewes and their yet-to-be-born lambs was considerably better.

I still wasn’t quite finished though. Just as I was about to leave, Arthur’s daughter came rushing out of the lambing shed.

“You couldn’t just have a look at this lamb could you? I think there’s something wrong with its navel...”

Like I said, lambing time can be long and drawn out.

The Yorkshire Vet returns to Channel 5 on Tuesday at 8pm