Spring is very much springing here in the UK. It starts with the crocuses and snowdrops, then the bright yellow daffodils start making an appearance and suddenly there are lambs frolicking in all the fields. So to celebrate the arrival of our favourite season (sssh! Don’t tell summer!), we thought we’d share this seasonal passage from our new book The New Homesteader by Bella and Nick Ivins. Over to Bella and Nick…
We started keeping sheep three years ago, as organic lamb is expensive to buy. When they are slaughtered in the autumn, the cuts we order from the butcher include rack of lamb, chops, ground mince, kidneys and boned shoulder and leg of lamb, and the sweetness add tenderness of the meat is indescribable. We’ve found that four small sheep can comfortably feed a family of four and our friends throughout the year.
The cycle starts in spring, when the three-day-old orphan lambs are delivered. These are the lambs that a ewe is unable to suckle – she only has two teats, so anything more than twins is not sustainable. Bottle-feeding lambs is time-consuming, so most commercially-minded farmers are happy to give up orphans rather than see them go to waste.
Raising these lambs is sheep-keeping in its easiest form, as there is no breeding or shearing involved. At first they are bottle-fed powdered milk, then weaned onto a compound pelleted feed (lamb creep) and grass. The nutritional value of the grass is at its highest in spring and early summer. When this starts to decline, the lambs need hay and a concentrate feed and things start to get expensive.
For the first few weeks, the lambs are kept in our potting shed on a bed of straw and only venture outside on warm spring days into a small area of grass enclosed with wooden hurdles. We shut them back in at night, out of reach of predators like foxes and crows. Once they are big enough to fend for themselves, the sheep are turned out into the field, but having been bottle-fed they always come rushing to the gate at the sight of us.
Sheep kept for only a few months are low maintenance. They need a regular supply of fresh water and we supplement the nutrition they get from grass with a bucket of feed mornings and evenings, but this is more as a treat than for any other reason. They are also sprayed with a chemical treatment to prevent flystrike and biting lice.
The arrival of the orphan lambs coincides perfectly with the school Easter holidays, providing daily entertainment for the children and their friends.
There is nothing more life-affirming than having a soft little lamb, with wrinkly, ill-fitting skin that’s too big for it, sitting on your lap, greedily feeding on its lukewarm bottle of milk. Where we live in Sussex, orphan lambs are known as sock lambs, probably because they were wrapped in socks in the farmhouse kitchen to keep them warm.
The milk replacement powder available from our local agricultural merchant arrives in a bag with making-up instructions usefully printed on the back. Four bottles will fit into a wire rack so, if necessary, all four lambs can be fed simultaneously. Once weaned, the lambs move on to grass and concentrate ‘creep’ feed. The sock lambs are always the smallest of their siblings and need to take every opportunity to put on weight over the summer.
The New Homesteader by Bella and Nick Ivins is available here. All photography is by Nick Ivins.