Opinion: Lambing will be even better when it’s over

It’s lambing time for us again and so far, whispering it quietly while touching wood, it seems to be going alright. Of course, after last year, virtually any scenario would be an improvement.


Our normal expectations of lambing are for a period of being cold, wet, tired and short tempered, accompanied by an underlying feeling of indigestion due to eating unhealthily late. I supposed at least it hasn’t snowed this year.


The main objective is to maximise life and minimise death. You are never completely successful and there is always a creeping anxiety that some disaster may be just around the corner and that there is something more you could or should be doing to avoid it.


That’s why we find ourselves at odds with a lot of the stuff I’ve seen or read recently in the non-trade press. This shows our fellow farmers and shepherds seemingly jumping up and down with excitement about lambing and claiming it to be the best time of the year.


There was a great deal of this sort of thing – enthusiasm, I think I’d call it – in the introductory episode of this year’s Lambing Live on BBC2. I can only suppose it contained a fairish dollop of salesman’s puff. After all, “tune in next week for scenes of drudgery, irritation and ovine death” was probably not the message they wanted to send.


As it happens, we enjoyed the main event, featuring the Dykes family from the Borders, in between Jake dashing off to phone people he recognised from the footage of the Kelso tup sale. In general, the programme gave a very good flavour of sheep farming.


However, a few purist eyebrows will have been raised when Kate Humble asked why they were not marking the ewe as well as the twin lambs. Rather tactfully, some self-deprecatory joke was made about being too mean with the expensive marker pen. But, I am informed, purists can regard ewes marked with numbers as a sign of a shepherd who doesn’t know their sheep. Awkward.


Our other pre-lambing agricultural TV treat was Princess Anne’s interview on Countryfile. In this, she reinforced the need to tackle the problem of TB in badgers in her usual direct and sensible way, or as someone put it to me, “she kicked the badger huggers in the goolies”.


It has always mystified me as to why badgers are held in such particular affection by the general public.


On the up side, they have black and white stripes and one of them featured in Wind in the Willows. On the down side, they carry and spread bovine TB and are aggressive creatures that kill hedgehogs, newborn lambs and the young of ground-nesting birds.


Furthermore, the inequality between creatures in the eyes of the law is quite striking. If a fox is worrying lambs, it can be shot. If a dog is worrying lambs, it can be shot. But if a badger is worrying lambs, nothing can be done about it. Some animals clearly are more equal than others, as Orwell wrote.


Back on the ranch, it’s so far, so good on the predator front. However, the day I’m looking forward to is the one when I look out and see a gang of lambs playing in a field, when I know they’re old enough to be safe from predators and every ewe we are expecting to deliver has done so. That’s the best part of lambing for me – when it’s over.


Elizabeth Elder and her husband Jake run sheep and cattle on 235ha of hill ground on the Otterburn Firing Range in Northumberland.


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