Lambing season

Although there were a couple of lambs here at Greatrakes that were born last year in the days and weeks after we first moved in, this year is our first proper lambing season, or at least the first one where we’ve been able to witness the whole process from conception to birth. Thanks to a wet spring in 2022, with bumper crops of pasture, we have managed to turn our little flock of nine ewes and one wether into twenty-two, following the birth of twelve lambs. Our amazing returns this year included five sets of twins, and a couple of singles, from seven pregnancies, with only two of the ewes failing to fall pregnant. The Isle de France ram that we had on loan (who we nicknamed Pierre), certainly had the good stuff going.

Cute as a button

Pierre was with us for almost three months during late spring and summer, and with the gestation period being around 150 days, we started to look forward to our first lambs a few weeks after Easter. With absolutely no prior experience, we didn’t really know what to expect, but luckily we’ve become acquainted with some absolutely wonderful sheep farmers nearby, who have been able to answer every stupid question we’ve thrown their way.

Big Mumma and her two boys

The first confirmation we had that we were about to have some lambs was in early May, when the belly and udders on one of the ewes started to swell. We, and even those with a lot more expertise than us, were convinced that a birth was imminent, but for the next two weeks she just continued to grow and grow. This was a ewe who had lost a baby the previous year, and her udders had never really returned to normal size, but by the Saturday morning when she finally walked away from the rest of the flock and started pawing at the ground, “Big Mumma”, as we dubbed her, was absolutely huge. We headed out for lunch that day, and neither of us was surprised when we returned to see two little boys sitting beside her in the paddock.

The first set of twins
Just look at the size of those udders!

Three days later, and the next ewe to go was one we’d nicknamed “One-horn” on account of a little stub of horn she has. Unlike Big Mumma, One-horn didn’t show any obvious signs of pregnancy for most of the time up until around the weekend that Big Mumma was giving birth, when we noticed her udders had started to swell as well. One-horn gave us two little girls, evening up the numbers nicely.

One-horn and her twins
In for a feed

A week and a half later we had another set of twins (one of each), however we still hadn’t managed to be around when they decided to arrive. Finally, one Wednesday when I was working from home and Vanessa had gone down to Melbourne for the day, I stepped out on to the veranda late in the afternoon and noticed one of the ewes on her own in among the red gums. I kept checking on her periodically as the afternoon wore on, and just before dark she gave birth to a little boy. Vanessa arrived home too late to see it, so we went out to check on it at first light and were surprised to see that a little girl had joined it some time after dark.

The first birth I got to see, albeit through a telephoto lens and obscured by trees
Unbeknownst to us at the time, this little boy was about to be joined by his sister

The next arrival was a couple of days later, and completely out of the blue, another set of twins that were born to a ewe that was showing no real signs of pregnancy, although upon closer inspection her udders were well hidden by a thick belly of wool. Then a couple of days later and after a run of four lots of twins, we finally had our first single – a little girl.

Our first single birthed lamb

By this stage the boys from Big Mumma and the girls from One-horn were growing rapidly, and had begun to play together, running and jumping around the paddock at high speed, and looking quite comical at times.

The lambs will often just spontaneously start jumping
They can actually jump quite high off the ground
An exceptionally comical sight

Since the October floods, we’d had no fencing along the lower half of our main paddock, so all of the sheep (and Rosie the Alpaca) had been confined to the side paddock we’d now designated as “the lambing paddock”. Despite the ample food and shelter in there, I knew that eventually we would need to move them, if only for the fact that the shearing pen was in the paddock on the far side of the property. I had earlier run a temporary electric fence across the paddock, just above the dam, and this had worked well in confining them to the fenced section prior to the lambing season, however one weekend they had all managed to get out after the local kangaroo population brought a section of the fence down overnight, so back to the safety of the lambing paddock they went. Now with the addition of nine lambs who had never ventured beyond the gates of that paddock, I felt the time was ripe to start working on a permanent fencing solution.

The local roo population played havoc with our temporary fencing

Over the course of the next few weekends, I binge-watched as many farm fencing videos on YouTube that I could find, and by mid June my very first sheep-mesh fence had been assembled, complete with steel end stays and a gate at one end to allow vehicle access down to the creek. It probably won’t win any awards, but it’s tight, sturdy and just what was needed to allow us to open up the side gates and let the flock roam freely between both sides of the property.

My first sheep mesh fence
Anti-fox light installed on one of the posts to help deter predators (and discourage roos)

It was great to be able to watch all of the ewes and their new lambs wandering around the fresh paddocks again, and to see the lambs playing “king of the castle” on the haystack that was left in the main paddock from the summer. With five of our nine ewes having now given birth, our focus turned to the remaining four, and whether or not they would also become mums. The difficulty is that while most of the girls look extremely fat, that’s as much to do with the abundant grass they’ve had to feed on – the only real give away is when the udders start to swell, and even then that’s not always obvious until after the event. Nonetheless, we were happy in the knowledge that we had almost doubled our flock, with a total of four boys and five girls that we took great delight in watching every chance we got.

The lambs absolutely love running to the top of the hay bale
It’s a long way up (and down) for a little lamb

Then finally, on the last Saturday in June, we got to witness another birth, as the ewe we call “Dotty” began to scratch at the ground right in the middle of the main paddock, in clear line of sight from our kitchen window. When she finally went into labour, I grabbed my telephoto lens and managed to get the entire procedure on camera. It was actually over very quickly, and as darkness descended, we were quite glad that she’d chosen a spot right in front of the fox deterrent light we’d installed along the new fence the previous weekend, as we’d noticed a couple of foxes around in days prior.

Dotty sitting on her own in the paddock, showing obvious signs of labour
The first fluid sack appears
Down for one big push
The first sign of a leg
Almost there
One last push
A brief, anxious moment as the new baby lies motionless on the ground
Mum comes over and it slowly raises its head
Welcome to the world, little one
Mum starts to clean it
The first attempt to stand
Took a couple of goes, but we got there in the end
Bubs is desperate to feed, but mum wants to give it a bit more of a clean first
Finally the time arrives for that first hit of colostrum
Bubs has a good feed

Dotty was one out of the four that we’d pencilled in as “possibly” pregnant, however we’d had our doubts because earlier in the summer she’d been attacked by a neighbour’s dog that had gotten into the paddock, and for a few days there we weren’t even sure if she was going to make it. We were so excited when she wandered off on her own that afternoon, and it was such a wonderful opportunity for us to finally watch one of the lambs being born up close, even if it was through a telephoto lens.

A little girl with her ear tag

The following weekend we had a number of friends over to give us a hand to mark and tag the new lambs. This always stirs up a bit of controversy, but marking basically involves applying a tight fitting rubber ring around the tails which stops the flow of blood below it, with that portion of the tail eventually withering and dropping off. It sounds cruel, but the lambs only show discomfort for an hour or two, after which time they get used to it and start playing as usual. What it does do though is prevents the sheep’s poo from building up and becoming fly-blown, a discomfort far worse and far more dangerous to the sheep. Some of our ewes had had their tails completely docked, but that exposes their nether regions to the sun and can lead to sunburns and cancer. In our case we prefer to leave a short stump that’s long enough to protect their private parts, but still short enough to prevent any build up of faeces.

A few hours after marking the tail

All sheep in Victoria are required to be tagged with electronic ear-tags, and I had already received my order of this season’s tags, so we did that at the same time. This year’s tags are sky blue in colour, and our friends informed us of a simple yet brilliant way of tagging them so that we could tell them apart – the boys were all tagged in the left ear, and the girls were all tagged in the right ear (because as everyone knows, girls are always right).

Big Mumma’s two boys
A little girl

The final thing to do was to desex all of the boys, as the last thing you want on a small farm like ours is to have a bunch of randy boys running around the paddocks trying to mate with their mums and sisters. This is also done using the same bands as used on the tails, and while a friend and I lifted the boys up and held their legs so they wouldn’t kick, Vanessa had the unenviable task of lifting up the little woolly purse, popping the two testicles into it, and securing it with a band. As a bloke, this was really uncomfortable to watch, and it certainly looked unpleasant for the little guys as they rolled around in the grass for the next few hours, but by the following day they were showing no signs of even noticing it, and were back to playing on their haystack castle with gay abandon.

Despite the rings on their tails and testes, the boys soon start to play again

The little boy who had been born the previous weekend (who we’ve nicknamed “Blackbeard” on account of the black spots around his mouth) had started to play with the others and we had him in the pen that day with everyone else, however when we lifted him up we found it was too hard to get both of his testicles up into the pouch, so we decided to leave the marking and tagging of him for another day. This turned out to be quite fortuitous, as the next morning while all of the newly tagged lambs (and Blackbeard) were at play, we noticed that one of the three remaining ewes had given birth to twins overnight. Of course this meant that the ear tags that I had ordered (which come in batches of ten), were no longer going to be enough for all of the new arrivals, so I jumped online and ordered another batch from the departmental website.

The last set of twins
In for a feed
Room for two

This last pair consisted of a boy and a girl, bringing our total now to an even six of each. Both were born quite healthy and both fed well during the first few days, however we’ve noticed that the little girl has been growing at a much faster rate than her brother, who often seems to get distracted and wanders off when he should be feeding. Several times we’ve had to intervene and usher him back to his mum when he’s dawdled off somewhere and found a tree to sleep under or a rush plant to play with, while his mother and sister have gone off to another paddock with the rest of the flock. “Curious George” we’ve named him, and although we were worried about him at first, these last few days it seems he’s finally built up the strength to keep up with mum and run after her when he does get side-tracked.

Rosie keeping an eye on the latest arrivals
Curious George is very interested in meeting Rosie

One really heart-warming thing to watch has been the way that Rosie has looked over all of the lambs, especially Curious George. In fact, one weekday while I was out trying to snap a few shots of the lambs at play in the late afternoon sun, I looked over into the lambing paddock to see Rosie checking on the new babies, and Curious George went right up to her for a little nose-boop.


Speaking of Rosie, we’ve been chatting to a local alpaca breeder about purchasing a couple more girls to keep her company, and I’m happy to say that by the end of this month, our little family should have increased by another two – stay tuned! That’s assuming of course that the two remaining ewes don’t surprise us and give birth within the last window of opportunity, given that we’re almost five months now from the day that the wonderful Pierre finally left our pastures to go and make babies elsewhere.

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