The trouble with triplets

Published: 01:35PM Apr 10th, 2012
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Lambing time is always an amazing opportunity to witness the gift of life; Graham Hampstead tells us of this season’s highs and lows down on the smallholding.

The trouble with triplets

This was the kale before we had –16ºC; after that it was about ended.

I get a bit of a break from tractor work this time of year as we start lambing. We usually have the sheep scanned to see who’s having what, but it somehow got missed this season. It’s been such a good autumn and winter with grass growth right up to December, all the sheep look big and fit, but we will have to wait and see if the size is caused by growing lambs or obesity. They all have a raddle mark so that’s a good start.

Timely delivery

The first one this season to lamb had a good set of twins, the next one to perform produced triplets, two tiny ones and one decent size one. She was an older ewe so she should have been well able to cope with three, or so it says in the book – the only problem is the ewe never read the book. She lambed first thing in the morning which seems to be a popular time for our flock; they very rarely lamb during the night, preferring to wait until first light. Once all three were safely out, we went up for some breakfast and left her cleaning them up. Half an hour later ‘lady shepherd’ (LS) checked in to see all was well; she shouted me down, the stupid sheep had managed to lay down on one of the small ones. LS pulled it out from under her, it was cold and did not move; ah well, these things happen, an old saying is ‘if you’ve livestock you’ll have dead stock’.

I laid the body down on the straw outside the pen while LS got the ewe up and put the two remaining lambs underneath for their first suck. This is a fiddly job, trying to get a dopey lamb to suck on a small teat surrounded by greasy wool; I leave this to LS who has always had the knack and is much more patient than me. While she was coaxing the lambs to suck, I glanced down at the lifeless body of the newborn lamb laid on the floor and I could swear I saw a slight movement of the small pink tongue which was lolled out sideways, I bent over and picked up the lamb. I held it on my chest and gave its small cold chest a vigorous rub; its eyes were still shut but there was the slightest suggestion of movement in the tiny body. “I think it’s alive,” I shouted while continuing to rub its chest.

Daughter Lucy looked in to see what all the fuss was about and went to pick a clean towel out of the cupboard. We always have a pile ready for lambing time; all our friends and relations save us their old towels, we’ve found that there is nothing as good for gripping impossibly slippery legs and heads when lambs need a tug to enter the world.

Lucy wrapped the limp body in the towel and rubbed it all over. After 10 minutes of this the lamb managed a weak bleat and after another 10 it managed to lift its head up and open its eyes. By now LS had rigged up a heat lamp, she laid the lamb under it and made up a bottle of powered colostrum. With all this intensive care the lamb couldn’t do other than come round and by night time it was laid normally with its two siblings. We extended the pen so they had plenty of room and left them to it.

Not so lucky

They were checked in the middle of the night and everything was fine; phew, one saved! When we went down the next morning the stupid sheep had laid on the biggest and best lamb and this time she had done the job right; this one was a proper goner, it was cold and stiff, so she was down to two. This isn’t always a bad thing because the ewe often struggles to raise triplets and you nearly always end up having to help them on with a bottle, but even so it’s always sad to lose one. Just when we thought we had got away with it, a couple of days later she laid on the poor thing we had managed to revive and this time it wasn’t so lucky; just like its larger brother it was a goner, so now there was just one small one left.

We have never really had any problems with ewes laying on their lambs, I should guess we have only lost one this way in the last 20 years; it must just be bad luck. The remaining tiny tup lamb has managed to avoid its clumsy mother for a week now, although we had a fright one night. I went down to the barn at midnight for a final check and the remaining lamb was sat on its back legs and going round in circles with its front ones. It had scratched quite a circle in the straw, so must have been doing it some time, I picked the little thing up and it was shaking all over and it had froth round its mouth.

I held it close to me and stroked its trembling body and spoke to it softly, it gradually calmed down and seemed to slip into a trance. I took it up to the kitchen and we put it in a cardboard box with a towel round it (please keep them coming); several times we heard it shaking in the box during the night. We came down next morning expecting to find the last of the triplets dead, but to our amazement it was stood up looking up at us out of the box. LS took it down to the barn and put it with the distraught mother, it went under and had a good suck, so it’s a mystery what happened; fortunately it’s still with us but still very small. It’s not all bad news; we have lots of healthy bouncing lambs.

The fodder situation has been odd; the large patch of thousand head kale I grew looked fine going into winter and I cut and carted a skip load every four or five days. All was well until halfway through January when we got a sharp cold spell. One night the temperature fell to –16ºC, it really clobbered the kale and it never really got over it. Most of it seemed to die back from the top and wilt, some of it slowly recovered but with a reduced growth of leaf. The wuzzel was the complete opposite after the long and cold winter of 2010 when I ran out of roots near the end of February and had none for most of the lambing in March. So I wouldn’t be caught out this winter, I grew a few extra rows last year. It turned out to be a bumper crop (although it was the driest summer for years); come autumn I grew ’em big and stacked ’em high.

You can’t win

So of course we had the mildest winter for years and I didn’t need as many. It’s now nearing the end of March and I have nearly half the clamp left; in another couple of weeks the spring grass will be growing an inch a day and the sheep won’t touch the wuzzels, so my next problem is what to do with several tons of unwanted mangels. As soon as the warmer weather permeates into the clamp, the roots heat up and start to go off and rot – you can’t win.

Words & Pictures Graham Hampstead

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