High up in the North Wales hills, Aled Jones is still seeing the lingering effects of the harsh winter as lambs begin to arrive.
He has 1250 ewes to lamb, some spread across the bare hillsides, and a few more vulnerable ones indoors. And, were it not for some daytime help in the shed, he’d be handling the whole enterprise alone.
“It is a challenge. There’s no doubt about that. But every year is only as difficult as the conditions make it,” he says.
About 150 ewes – those scanned with triplets and poorer ewes carrying twins – have been brought indoors in to the farm’s main shed. Relatively few make their way here, and although some other flock managers might choose to bring as many as possible under cover, this is strictly Mr Jones’s emergency hospital.
Most of his time is spent out on the hills with the rest of the flock’s Beulah- and Lleyn-cross ewes. “They’re all treated on the Heptovac P system four to six weeks before they lamb,” he says. “It’s only the poorer ewes we have to house. But the winter has meant we’ve got more of those this year.”
As soon as the snow cleared, Mr Jones urgently began scanning and ewes are now parted into separate groups according to the number of lambs they are carrying, plus a separate mob of shearlings. “Scanning results have been mixed. We’ve done well as far as barren ewes go – only 2.5% – and the majority of the flock has scanned at 150-155%, similar to last year. But the yearlings have been disappointing – down to 112% this year, when we normally expect 120-125%.”
There seems to be no obvious management issue to account for this disappointing performance, and Mr Jones is reluctant to blame the harsh winter without evidence. “They were in good condition when they went to the ram, and there’s been no evidence of abortion. It’s possible there were more instances of embryos being reabsorbed. But it’s difficult to say exactly what is behind this.
“It’s possible that it could be genetic. Maybe we’ve been breeding from too many singles.”
The ewes’ condition was boosted further by selenium, cobalt, copper and iodine boluses administered when they went to the tup, avoiding a January injection to top-up mineral levels. “These boluses are supposed to last six months – through the winter and into the first month when they lamb down, helping them produce better colostrum and giving the lambs a good start.
“I can’t say exactly how well these have worked, but they’re certainly not doing any harm. They cost £1.20 a ewe and given that we’ve had such a bad winter, I think things could have been a lot worse.”
At least the few barren ewes have gone some way to offset their lost income potential. “We’ve been getting £70 a head for barren Beulah ewes and £38 a head for the poorest types – much better than we’ve seen in recent years.”
Other than the few barren ewes, Mr Jones has been fortunate to have lost only two breeding sheep to the snow and two to a dog attack. “If this winter has shown anything, it’s been the inherent strength of both breeds – they’ve lost condition but they’ve stuck it out.”
“We don’t usually reckon to start lambing properly until about 20 March. By that time a bit of green is usually visible, but not this year. Our deferred grazing is like a desert at the moment.”
Hill paddocks set aside last year died off in the winter – leaving a thick layer of yellowed thatch that is stiff, lacking nutrition and unpalatable even to hungry sheep.
“My feed costs will be about £12.50 a head – about 50% up on the year,” says Mr Jones. All the silage bales have been consumed, and ewe rations have had to be supported with relatively expensive concentrate feeds.
The long, hard winter in the Welsh hills has only just abated – and it’s given the bold experiment of relying on deferred grazing a significant knock. But the principle still holds good, Mr Jones says. “This winter has made Rupert Greenwell (WHO???) and me aware that we need some degree of contingency plan, some buffer of conserved silage or hay as insurance against losing the grass.”
The enterprise is based on producing finished lambs and Aberdale ewe lambs (Inverdale Texel crosses) by relying on deferred grazing to replace expensive cereal feeds or conserved fodder through the winter, taking advantage of hardy sheep breeds and a New-Zealand style, low inputs system that saves about £8500 a year in silaging and other costs.
By using a bigger ewe than most Welsh hill flocks, and cleaning the ground through rotational grazing, Mr Jones hopes to get 1.5 lambs on the same system that would only produce single lambs with more traditional Welsh breeds.
“The important thing about our system is that we have learned the value in being flexible. We have had to improvise and this year, with the unusually hard winter, the deferred-grazing system hasn’t worked so well. So we hold our hands up and next year we’ll tweak the system again to cope with the conditions that are thrown at us.”
But this year, Mr Jones has had to rely heavily on Rumenco feed block, and, more recently, good old-fashioned ewe cake. “The ewes with single lambs on the top of the hills have been getting 3/4lb of cake a day all the way through, and the block shave been disappearing fast in the twins, so we’ve had to feed cake as well.
This has meant developing a bit of an art to stop the stampede when they see the Land Rover and the consequent risk of mismothering lambs. But it’s interesting that the ewes seem to be comfortable switching between the feed blocks and cake and back again.”
Luckily for Mr Jones, he is getting some much-needed help in his hospital shed from neighbour Deb Chesterfield, who is dealing with the problem cases for most of the day. She is busy fostering lambs on to ewes that have lost one or all of their lambs, and dealing with ewes that need assistance.
Generally, ewes are producing plenty of milk, and Mr Jones can make all his rounds with his quadbike. Ewes that have still to lamb are separated from the others, and kept in paddocks closer to the farmstead, allowing Mr Jones to make shorter journeys as lambing progresses. “First thing, I’m up in the shed. Then it’s a case of going round, looking for anything that has lambed in the night and is having problems.”
The effects of winter are still making themselves felt. Attacks on lambs by foxes and carrion crows have been more noticeable this spring, although two foxes have now been accounted for. “It’s clear that every living thing out there is hungry this spring.”