The Hill-Farmers' Year
As in most farm enterprises, hill-sheep farming follows a seasonal and cyclical pattern. The start of the year is in October when the breeding cycle begins.
Mating or Tupping
Ewes are always brought off the fell and into the lower pastures for tupping. Not only does this make life more comfortable for the sheep (a bit like the difference between bivouacking and five-star accommodation), but also allows the farmer to monitor the progress of the mating season.
A sensitive gland in the sheep's brain detects the shortening hours of daylight in the autumn. This gland secretes a chemical called a hormone, which stimulates the ewe's ovaries to release eggs. The hormones also give the ewe a certain scent (like an all over body spray), and which the male sheep or rams find irresistible! Excited by the scent of the female, he too produces male hormones, (even smellier!), which make him want to mate with the female.
Rams (also called tups or tips) aren't noted for their fidelity and one ram can serve (make pregnant) about 45 ewes. So in the sheep world, at least, the girls always outnumber the boys.
Every day, at tupping time, the farmer marks the tup's chest with a brightly coloured paint. If the tup has jumped onto the ewe's back to mate with her, he leaves some of the paint as evidence. The "in season" ewe releases eggs every 2 weeks, until she becomes pregnant, after which, no more eggs are released and the sexy body-spray runs out. To coincide with the ewe's fertile period, the farmer changes the colour of his tup paint or raddle every 2 weeks. He then knows if the tup is still working, and can work out when lambing will take place. Some sheep have to be mated many times before they become pregnant and can end up with rumps like rainbows!!
In January the sheep are given an ultra sound scan. A special instrument is placed on the sheep's belly and an inside view of the sheep is seen on a small TV screen. From the blurry picture, a trained eye is able to tell how many lambs the sheep is carrying. This information is useful to the farmer, since he knows that sheep with more than one lamb will need extra feed and those with three lambs will need intensive care!
The Return to the Fell
After tupping, the pregnant ewes are returned to the lower parts of the fell, where they remain until close to lambing. The farmer visits every day to check them, and to feed them hay (dried grass), silage ("pickled" grass) or special sheep feed. So, even though they have to endure the harsh conditions of the fell in winter, the meals-on-wheels service keeps them in good condition.
The Maternity Wing
Two weeks before the first lambs are due to be born, that's 150 days after tupping or 150 days after the coloured rump appears, the sheep are brought down to the lower pastures. Here the ewes will find more shelter, and more nutritious grass, to turn into milk for their lambs. The gestation period for sheep is 150 days.
The farmer checks his lambing sheep about three times a day throughout the lambing period, helping lambs into the world and teaching weak or sickly lambs to suck milk from their mothers. A few hours after lambing, the ewe and lamb(s) are moved into a nursery pasture and female lambs are tagged and a record made of their parents. Male lambs, which will eventually be slaughtered for meat, have special elastic bands put onto their testicles. The testicles drop off, and the castrated lamb or whether as it is now known can grow fat and produce delicious lamb chops for the table. In the days before elastic bands, farmers were reputed to have bitten off lambs' testicles Yuk!
The Return to the Fell
At the end of May, when the weather improves, the ewes and lambs are returned to the fell for summer. Before being given the freedom of the open fell, the lambs are given their identifying marks.
Since the lambs are still suckling from their mothers, they stay close to them and because the ewes are hefted and know their patch' the lambs also learn to stick to a certain part of the fell. If ewes and lambs do become separated they recognise each others voices and bleat to each other until they are reunited. This "knowledge" of the fell stays with the lamb throughout its' life and will in turn be passed on to it's offspring. It's a bit like recognising your own garden.
Too Warm for Jackets
By mid July, the lambs have grown much larger and have difficulty getting under their mothers to suckle. They butt the ewes' udders ferociously to stimulate the flow of milk, sometimes launching the ewe off her back legs- nature's very own milk shake!! Although they can, by now, survive without milk they will continue to suckle if they have the opportunity and this takes its toll on the ewe. It's time to cut those apron strings.
Clipping & Weaning
The farmers, who have rights to graze it, gather the fell. Starting from the top, the sheep are driven down by a combination of: dogs, farmers on quad bikes, shouting and whistling. They are gathered into special fields known as intakes and eventually into pens where they are sorted and returned to their respective owners.
Over the next few days, the lambs are separated from their mothers. The weaning process means that the lamb will no longer take milk from it's mother and will rely totally on grazing. Weaning is tough on the eardrums, since lambs and ewes bleat loudly to each other over huge distances.
After weaning, the ewes are clipped or sheared, marked and again, returned to the fell, only this time without their lambs.
The lambs remain in the lower pastures to continue their growth.
Some male lambs, having been fattened all summer, are now ready for slaughter. These "fat lambs" are taken to auctions or sold privately to butchers or abattoirs. They are killed and cut up into joints for the butchers' shop or supermarket.
The female lambs are kept by the farmer and will eventually replace the older hefted sheep on the fell.
In September, the fell is gathered again. The ewes are brought down to
lower pasture and given their annual dipping.
The young female lambs, now known as hoggs remain on the lower pastures or are sometimes sent away to other lowland farms for the winter. They will be sent back to the fell, this time alone, when the weather improves in April.
October again and the ewes are checked for fitness. If they are to survive the harsh conditions on the fell, they must have a full set of teeth. They must carry enough flesh to see them through the winter, and shouldn't be any older than four years.
Ewes are aged by the number of times they have been clipped. Lambs aren't clipped in their first summer of their lives but are known as hoggs (teenagers) by the autumn. The following summer, they are clipped and then become one-shear; the year after, two shear and so on.