It’s one of the busiest times of years for Yorkshire’s sheep farmers, but Tony Greenbank meets one shepherd taking time out to give refugees a lesson in lambing.
Springtime in England: lambs gambolling on the Hampshire Downs, spring-heel-Jack jumping in Exmoor’s pastures, suckling their mother’s milk in Derbyshire’s Peak District, skipping about on Leicestershire’s Beacon Hill, bleating away there on Northumberland’s wild Cheviot hills...
Kicking up their heels in the Yorkshire Dales’s Three Peaks country, newly-born Swaledale lambs are also a source of wonder, particularly for refugees and asylum seekers on an undulating upland pasture below Ingleborough, Yorkshire’s ’Table Mountain’ with its flat top where they once raced horses.
Thanks to a most successful initiative over the last 10 years by the Clapham-based charity, the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust (YDMT), day visitors from war-torn countries find a welcome release here annually come lambing time. Widdale shepherd Rodney Beresford says such visitors to his triple SSSI site may be from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria, Somalia, Eritrea or beyond.
“Everybody enjoys handling the lambs, watching Rodney at work and learning about farming,” says YDMT community development worker Judy Rogers. “Being in the countryside lifts everyone’s moods and at the same time we can lend a hand. I would like to say a huge thank you to Rodney for his time, enthusiasm and commitment to this project, which offers such magical and memorable experiences to hundreds of people each year.”
The day I visited Rodney’s farmland near Ribblehead viaduct on the Settle-Carlisle railway, the visitors hailed from countries ranging from Syria to Iran; from Iraq to The Gambia.
Together they had found refuge at St Augustine’s community centre in Halifax. On their visit to the Three Peaks country, they first arrive en route for Ribblehead by minibus in the Yorkshire Dales National Park car park in Horton in Ribblesdale. Here, and somewhat bemused, they are kitted out and briefed for their day ahead.
After donning walking boots and purple waterproofs – kindly loaned courtesy of the Malham Tarn Field Centre – they re-board the bus once more. Their destination? That large olive green pasture with those environmentally protected limestone clints where pregnant ewes are giving birth during April.
It lies just across the road from Ribblehead’s famous viaduct. Further opposite is Whernside, the tallest of the Three Peaks as it beetles above Chapel-le-Dale, across from Ingleborough.
The minibus finally stops outside Sleights barn in its eponymous pasture, a corrugated iron shelter. This, Judy tells me, is also known as “the hospital” with its “maternity ward”.
Rodney tells our group that difficult births happen here, though generally lambs are born successfully during the night out in the pasture. He also comes across sheep giving birth too in the day as he tours around with his blue metal shepherd’s crook, ready to assist if need be. Usually, he lets nature take its course as lambs for been born the world over without assistance since the year dot.
When difficulties present themselves, he collects the “patients” in a trailer towed behind his pickup with the word “Lambulance” painted on the side – and whisks them to the barn. He paints a typical lambing example he might come across. A black-faced Swaledale sheep, say, is about to give birth. He kneels down on the moorland, gently feeling inside the rear-end of the pregnant ewe.
Around him a circle of faces watch so absorbed that even when a mobile phone beeps the owner pays no attention.
At last he draws back his hand, bringing the two tiny rear legs of a lamb about to be born into view and delivers the diminutive bundle, bleating feebly while the mother begins to lick the lamb clean.
“So long as the lamb can reach its mother’s teat,” he says, “and get its mother’s milk within the first three or four hours which has the life-giving ingredient colostrum it will usually be grand as owt.”
Farmers call colostrum the “magic juice” that will revive a new arrival “just like that”. They says “the first drop in their mother’s milk is a must”. Rodney agrees, adding that colostrum only appears in the milk after the mother-to-be has grazed fresh spring grass. “Most newborn lambs survive being born this natural way,” he repeats. But some do perish. A case in point, he tells the visitors peering into Sleights barn, is the forlorn spectacle of a dead lamb lying on straw carpeting the barn floor.
It suffered what is called a “breech birth” in the night, the still unborn lamb unfortunately facing backwards way round inside the ewe and proving dead after Rodney had extricated it on his arrival early on the following morning.
Rodney then asks the group to accompanying him as he tours the large pasture, “looking for trouble”. “Trouble?” I ask. “Difficult births,” he says. “Complications. While most lambs survive being born unattended, thing happen. When I find a sheep and lamb in need of TLC I put them in the Lambulance and take them back to the barn.”
The group fans out all looking for sheep in labour and tiny lambs that have just been born on the rough ground full of peat hags and holes. The result of all the searching? Two sets of twins have appeared since Rodney’s last inspection.
“Do they need the Lambulance?” I ask. He shakes his head as we perch on rocks near the barn, eating our sarnies and sip Thermos flask coffee. “Best leave them to dry out, let their mothers lick them clean then bring them down later to lower-altitude ground.”
He points to nearby clints and mentions their danger. Succulent ferns and grasses grow deep in the grikes – the miniature crevasses that have been known to lure lambs and sheep. “Doesn’t happen so much now,” he adds. “But there was a time when we lost several of the flock that way.”
Following the break, the group – now wearing safety gloves – cradle pristine white lambs in their arms which they hand one by one in turn to Rodney for processing. They chat meanwhile with the farmer who sometimes converses in Dalesman speak. A guest from Syria asks me, “What does ‘Eeh ba gum’ mean?”
Most lambs were born a few days previously. They are now safe in a sheep-pen. Rodney and a willing helper from Nigeria apply sheep smitt dye the colour of aquamarine to their snow-white lambskins. Now their ownership can be identified.
The lambs also have numbered tags clipped to their ears as a more precise ID. And infant male tups, unless destined for breeding purposes, have rubber rings attached round their testicles so these eventually wither and drop off. Thus successfully gelded, these male lambs then become fattened up with better grass to finish probably as lamb chops.
Food for the ewes is a vital part of lambing, Rodney tells me. That explains the silage bale in a feeder I can see, sheep apparently preferring to eat silage rather than hay.
Also scattered on the grass are much-gnawed fodder beets, “Just the thing for in-lamb mothers so providing them with energy from the sugar and fibre into the bargain.
“The secret of good lambing,” he says, “is through the mother’s stomach. Keep the mum’s full and they will look after their lambs.” “And otherwise?” I query. “Otherwise they have been known to ignore their offspring.” He nods in a nowt-as-queer-as-sheep way. “Only one thing,” he says. “The beggars eat costly fodder beet too fast!”
Two miracles in a day; that’s the lambing on Sleights pasture.
The miracle of new-born lambs thriving after being born in the night. And the sheer pleasure given by this sight to the visitors, so serious on their arrival to this windswept place. But who are transformed, their faces wreathed in smiles.
As someone recently returned from hospital and needing to use two trekking poles for support, I could not have asked for better helping hands to assist as I laboured up and down those steep Dales slopes.