Jonathan: U9 is nearly a week old now, and she’s growing astonishingly fast. Her third night of life was nearly her last: there was an unexpected sharp frost, and although in the wood-shed it is not completely enclosed and she must have developed hypothermia. For a couple of days she scarcely moved from her hay box: she had to be lifted out and would just stand there wobbling; she scarcely made a sound and the only way I could get food down her was through a feeding syringe and tube straight down into her stomach. But she recovered and is now very hungry, consuming well over a litre of milk a day! If either of us go out of the house, she’s our little black shadow, staying so close to our legs it’s as if she’s tied to our ankles! Which is very endearing, but soon becomes a nuisance when in fact you’re going back into the house or are getting in to a car!
Denise: This morning U9 guzzled down 300ml of milk in less than three minutes, tugging at the bottle like crazy, and snorting! When she eventually let go, and stood there – almost sozzled with milk, you could hear the gurgling and bubbling as it all settled into her tummy: and that’s the signal to get her outside – for what goes in must eventually come out!
Jonathan: As the lambs on the croft have grown and are more ‘mobile’, their mothers seem more willing to leave the security of the peninsula which they seemed to have made their maternity ward, and are coming to me for their morning treats. With a judicious shaking of the feed bucket and some encouraging rustling of hay, I have over the past two or three mornings enticed all of them back into the field, where I will have a bit more control over them. Out of the 16 breeding ewes, I now have 11 lambs (including U9 at home) from 10 ewes, so there’s possibly another half dozen or so to come. 8 of the 11 lambs born so far are female. I need the sheep back in the field because on 1 May all livestock have to go up on the common grazings, or be contained on the crofters own land. The field in question is borrowed until I complete my own fencing work: but the grazing is thin after the long winter, so I’ll have to continue feeding hay and sheep nuts until I can get the fencing work complete and the sheep transferred to my own new field.
Jonathan: Just back from the croft and our own ‘lambwatch’. Actually that’s a bit too passive: unlike the TV version which seems always to be in warm cosy straw-upholstered barns, ours involves trudging acrossing boggy and rocky ground looking out for sheep standing oddly still and apparently with more than four legs: generally that’s how you first spot a recently born lamb, hiding behind its mum. No 00008 was first past the post, Good Friday, with a good strong ewe lamb; her sister 00006 followed on Saturday with twin boys; and since then four others have given birth to single ewe lambs. Yesterday morning I found one recently born lamb – still covered in birth fluids and bleating away, but no mum nearby. But – there she was – with after-birth still trailing behind her – amongst the other ewes tucking into a tasty tussock of grass. I caught her and rubbed here muzzle in the wet lamb’s fleece: according to all the books I’d read she was supposed to start licking and caring for her wee mite; but she would have none of it: as soon as I loosed my grip she was off. Catching her again and giving her a good look over, the reason was apparent: no milk. She was abandoning her lamb because she had nothing to feed it with. There are of course various long-established shepherding techniques for dealing with this situation, but they all involve various bits of equipment, buildings and experience, none of which I have. And time and circumstances were against me to: the only choice open to me was to take the lamb home for hand-rearing, as for a an orphaned lamb. Fortunately I am prepared for bottle-feeding. First to clean up the wee baby and dry it off, and then to get some colostrum down its gullet. Colostrum is the highly concentrated milk a ewe gives its lambs within the first 24hrs or so of life, but which I have to get from vacuum-sealed packets, at £10 for the full 24-hr dose. That was yesterday. Today we’re on to ordinary ewe-milk substitute. U9 (as I’m calling her – Tilly thinks the thing is a little black K9, but I keep telling her no, she’s a U) has been outside today, in the back garden, but she’s got a nice straw-lined box in the woodshed for when she’s sleepy.
Jonathan: I lay low against the grassy bank, the wind roaring and tearing at the rock and heather above me, a barrage of hail beating into the back of my hood, the clouds above purple with rage. But I’d come into the hills well prepared, with layers of warm clothing, good oilskins, a spade – and I was comfortable enough. My thoughts were elsewhere – transported many miles away to Hesgeir island, which lies in the middle of The Minch. For despite the dark and murk of the day, there on the horizon, the lighthouse of Hesgeir was illuminated by a shaft of light, tightly focussed as if from some heavenly lighthouse. High above, a tiny fragment of pale blue, ringed with salmon pink: but the clouds closed ranks, and as the darkness swallowed up Hesgeir again, my mind reverted to the here and now. Ah yes, the spade. Yesterday I’d had a call from Murdo in Eriskay: sorry to be giving you bad news again, but did you know ….? No I didn’t, but I’ll deal with it as soon as the weather allows. And believe it or not this morning was indeed a big improvement in the weather. So there I was this morning trekking up into the hills to bury one of our Hebridean sheep – one of the 16 wedders we bought back in Autumn. I found it up on the rocky shoulder of a ridge that falls slowly to the south east, to the shores of Loch Cracabhaig – and extremely exposed to the prevailing winds from the Atlantic. Ordinarily I would have said it had died within the past week, but it could have been longer since: even the crows, eagles and buzzards who had already got to work on the corpse would have found the dining environment less than salubrious, and may have left it to come back to another time. I dropped down to the gully below and probed the soft ground with my spade. Yes, deep enough – but with the dense moss it was like a sponge. (Ever tried digging into a sponge – the type you wash the car with – with a spade? No? But go on, imagine!) I dug with the peaty bog-water slopping around my wellingtons, and though deeper would certainly be better, that was as deep as I could dig. It’s not good to handle a sheep by its horns, at least whilst it’s still alive, but under the circumstances the horns came in mighty handy. I found some heavy stones to weigh down the body, and then made good the ground. Inevitably a mossy mound remained. I recalled the cowboy and indian films that were on TV so much when I was a boy. In the aftermath of the Apache ambush, the wounded cowboy – arm in a make-shift sling, sets up a crude wooden cross at the end of the mound of earth where he buried his fatally-injured friend (scalped?); he puts his rifle back in the saddle holster, hat back on his head, foot in the stirrup – and rides away into the sunset. I leant my spade back over my shoulder, put my foot onto the ledge that took me back up onto the ridge, and set off into the … well, back home, anway. Alas it’s the second sheep we’ve lost this winter (the first was in the severe storm on the 9th), and it’s hardly to be wondered at, with the truly appalling weather. Let’s hope there’s no more lost! The next break in the weather, I shall have to get up into the hills and find the others, and take a bag of feed with me.