Lamb Tales

Our frosted hills and fields, for so long hushed in a quiet stillness of waiting, will soon be alive with the joyous sight and sound of new-born lambs, and the low chunnerings of their attentive mums. Snowdrops will give way to daffodils, and our hearts will be gladdened by the promise of longer, warmer days ahead. This is lambing season: the busiest time in the calendar for sheep farmers, signalling weeks of early starts, late nights, and back-breaking work.

In 2017, respected landscape photographer, Roy Carr, spent an intensive year recording the work of sheep farmers in South Wales, and he has very kindly agreed to share an extract from his chronicle of this project, ‘A Year In Their Lives’, accompanied by his atmospheric and intimate photographs of the sheep and their lambs.

A Year In Their Lives

I spent a year following four sheep farms in south Wales during which I captured key events for the animals and the people who work with them across a year.

My photographic background is rooted deeply in classical landscape work, with people largely absent from it. This project posed the challenge of working with people, largely in their ‘home’ environment where the building of relationships was as important as photographic skills. It also demanded, at times, a quick reaction to what is happening in front of me, in contrast to the slow deliberate approach of my landscape work. At times the compositional approach and the patience I learned from my landscapes were important for this project as I waited for the animals or people to come to me to create the images I wanted.

I brought both ignorance and curiosity to this work, learning so much from the people I observed. It afforded me an insight into the challenges of their work and their generosity in accepting me. Not for them the shelter of an office. Their work makes huge physical demands in all weathers.

Waiting to give birth

Waiting to give birth

Lambing marks the beginning of the new cycle for the sheep farmer, providing the next generation of stock. Great care is taken to monitor the ewes as they approach lambing. Some farmers scan their ewes to indicate how many lambs they are carrying, others simply rely on their years of experience. Where there are concerns about the well-being of the ewes, they are brought in to pens where they can be closely monitored, ensuring help is on hand to deliver the lambs.

“New Born”

“New Born”

This lamb had been ‘pulled’ from its mother just five minutes before by Sue, the shepherdess. The ewe called to her offspring, enticing it to stand and feed. Licking the lamb helped the two animals to bond, as the ewe learned the scent of her new born which enables her to recognise it within the flock. This also provides vital nutrients to the ewe, stimulating the production of milk.

“Feeding”

“Feeding”

“Orphans”

“Orphans”

Not all lambs are able to feed from their mothers. Some ewes may die during the trauma of birth — fortunately a rarity on the farms I visited. Others may reject their young. In either event, they need to feed if they are to survive. Here the lambs are bottle fed in the shelter of a barn. Others may rely on their shepherds to ‘dress’ them in the skin and fleece of a dead lamb in order to trick the ewe into feeding the orphan in the belief it is her own, as she recognises the scent of the orphan’s ‘jacket’.

The ewes are immensely protective of their young, keeping them close to hand.

Lambs quickly gain their independence, though they will bleat for their mothers if they become distressed or their mothers will call for their return.

Curiosity quickly gets the better of the lambs as they bravely venture out into their home environments.

“Protection”

“Protection”

“Independent”

“Independent”

“Tentative”

“Tentative”

The work from this project fed into an exhibition at the Cynon Valley Museum, Aberdare, which ran from 15th June until 21st July 2018. If you would like to find out more about Roy's work, you can discover his site here.

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Many thanks to Roy for sharing these fascinating, informative, and sensitive insights into this busiest of farming seasons.

If you fancy experiencing the excitement and joy of lambing time for yourself, there are plenty of ways you can do this. Check out Farmstay.co.uk or BestofWales.co.uk for a selection of holiday accommodation offering the chance for you to get up close and personal with lambs, from watching them being born, to bottle feeding the orphans, and everything else besides! However, may I sound a note of caution: living as I do in sheep farming country in North Wales, I have heard many a horror story relating to lambing time from local famers and shepherds, so I am making a plea to my fellow dog owners - if you are taking your dog out for a walk in the countryside, please, please, keep it under control. Sadly, the NFU reports that there were in excess of 700 cases of sheep and cattle worrying on farms across the UK in 2018, the cost to farmers was in the region of £1million, the cost to the animals, immeasurable. The instinct of even the best-behaved dogs can cause them to chase lambs and ewes, so please keep yours on a lead around them and other livestock at all times, and don’t forget to pick up after them – their mess can contain parasites which are harmful to farm animals.

Finally, some sheep facts for you! These animals have been farmed in the UK for over 8,000 years, and while today most farms are geared towards meat production, in medieval times wool was the driving force of the economy, with many a wealthy town and shire being built on the proceeds of the fleeces. Of the entire population of sheep in Europe, one quarter are here in the UK, and far from being the dull, stupid animals they are often perceived to be, they are, in fact, rather amazing animals. Having horizontal pupils with a 320 degree field of vision, they can see behind them without turning their heads, and amazingly, when running they can reach speeds of 25mph – what’s more, recent studies have shown that they are able to recognise the faces of others in their flock, as well as those of people!

Wherever you are this spring, look out for those first cute new-borns of 2019!

 
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Sonia Goulding

Sonia lives with her other half, Jon, and her two gorgeous dogs Alfie and Seren, in the pretty hill village of Cilcain, in the glorious Clwydian Hills. She is passionate about rural north Wales and enjoys researching and writing about the people she meets and the beautiful businesses on our doorstep. Sonia and Jon consider themselves very lucky to be able to live and work in such wonderful surroundings, counting their blessings every day!

Birdwatching for Beginners - Get ready for the Big Garden Birdwatch 2019!

If rumours are to be believed, it is no longer the reclusive middle-aged pastime, no, millennials are now flocking to … birdwatching!

Birdwatching for Beginners - Get ready for the Big Garden Birdwatch 2019!

Just like meditation, journalling and rambling, birdwatching brings a new mindfulness to our busy lives, and one can be completely entranced; drawn into and absorbed by the beauty of nature and the flocks’ social dynamics. Indeed, an article by the Telegraph states that ‘It’s meditation in the sense that it’s immersive and therapeutic, but birdwatching can also be more visceral than any theatre. There is death, love and beauty: the horror of the migratory impulse which lures incomprehensibly fragile little birds over perilously stormy seas; the joy when a pair reunites after months apart; the mystery of starling murmurations, in which thousands of the birds, densely-packed, ripple through the air like iron filings manipulated by an unseen magnet.’

Whilst it’s recommended that a novice birdwatcher uses a guidebook or app to look up birds and their songs, and visit a local RSPB reserve to be gifted with a plethora of feathered friends, this weekend - the 26-28 January - marks the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, a great excuse to watch your garden birds.

With over half a million people now regularly taking part, coupled with almost 40 years worth of data, the Big Garden Birdwatch allows the RSPB to monitor trends and understand how birds are doing. Although as a nation we've lost more than half our house sparrows and some three-quarters of our starlings - it isn't all doom and gloom. Since Birdwatch began blue tit numbers have risen by 20 per cent and the woodpigeon population has increased by a whopping 800 per cent. By testing your bird spotting skills and submitting your findings this weekend, it gives scientists valuable information about our local bird populations, and what we can do to help.

Our top tips for starting your foray into twitcherdom this weekend?

  1. Choose a good place to watch from. Which window gives you the best view? Make sure it's comfy and you have the essentials within easy reach - a nice, hot drink and your favourite biscuits - and somewhere to jot down what you see.

  2. Relax and watch the birds for an hour. Count the maximum number of each species you see at any one time. For example, if you see a group of three house sparrows together and later another two, and after that another one, the number to submit is three. That way, it’s less likely you’ll double-count the same birds.

  3. Head over to the Big Garden Birdwatch page and submit what you’ve seen.

So who can you keep an eye out for in your garden or outdoor space?

  • A colourful mix of blue, yellow, white and green makes the blue tit one of our most attractive and most recognisable garden visitors, while its less colourful relative - the coal tit - has a distinctive grey back, black cap, and white patch at the back of its neck.

  • Everyone knows the house sparrow, but its numbers have dropped alarmingly. They're still common garden visitors in many areas, though. Males have a black chin and 'bib'; females are dressed in more subtle shades of brown.

  • You may be able to spot a chaffinch hopping on the ground, looking for seeds. Male chaffinches have a subtle pink breast, while females are more brown. They both have distinctive black and white flashes on their wings.

  • It’s likely that you will hear the collared dove before you see it, with its comforting ‘coo-coo-coo-coo’ call. A pale, pinky-brown grey colour, with a distinctive black neck collar, They have deep red eyes and reddish feet, and are responsible for repetitive cooing songs and those twiggy nests on your satellite dish.

  • The woodpigeon, however, is now the UK's largest and commonest pigeon, and is largely grey with a white neck patch and white wing patches, clearly visible in flight. Woodpigeons also have beautiful pinkish and turquoise hints to their plumage.

  • You may spot the classic blackbird and also their smaller friend the starling. Smaller than blackbirds, with a short tail, pointy head and wings, starlings look black at a distance but when seen closer they are very glossy with a sheen of purples and greens. In winter they're covered in pale spots - which gives them their name.

Ensure you have a mixture of foods out to tempt your new feathered friends into the garden, remember that whilst some birds like chaffinches are not so keen on using bird feeders and generally prefer to shuffle around on the ground, picking up seeds that other birds have dropped; others like blackbirds eat a variety of foods, from earthworms to fruits like apples and berries. Visit the RSPB website to explore more of the perfect menu for your birdwatching weekend!

I would love to know, how will you #BigGardenBirdWatch? Do you have plans to register onlineand gather much valued data, or are you planning to venture further afield to your nearest hide?

 
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Janet Hill

I’m Janet, and I live at the foot of the beautiful Welsh Hills with my children Mary, 21, and Mark, 18. We share our four-acre plot with our six dogs, six cats, four hens, an assortment of wild ducks and all the other wonderful wildlife that visits our garden.

How to Attract Wildlife to Your Garden This Winter

As we near the shortest day of the year, the nights draw in, temperatures drop and native animals like hedgehogs need to find a safe, cosy spot to hibernate until spring. Food sources can also be scarce so turning your garden into a sanctuary for wildlife can make all the difference to our native species' survival.

How to Attract Wildlife to Your Garden This Winter - The Hills Countryside Blog

Mark Sage, head of horticulture at Wyevale Garden Centre, believes caring for wildlife in winter is important wherever you live.

"Whatever size outdoor space you have and whether you live in the country or an urban environment, I guarantee you’ll be able to see and support a range of species over the autumn and winter," he says. "Protecting wildlife over the cooler seasons is extremely important – it’s also a great way of getting your children excited about – and closer to – nature. Whether it’s a mammal, bird, insect or amphibian, nature enthusiasts can use our tips to turn their gardens into a wildlife haven for winter."

Helping our Birds

Many of us are familiar with bird feeders and try to encourage birds into our garden. This winter, feed a variety of birds with their own favourite foods to see a flock of variations in your garden.

Try placing fat blocks in wire cages (balls in plastic nets are not recommended as birds such as woodpeckers can get their tongues caught), or create your own fat blocks by melting suet into moulds such as coconut shells or logs with holes drilled in. It is encouraged to alternate different recipes to entice a range of birds; peanut cakes for starlings, insect cakes for tits and berry cakes for finches! Also, snacks such as finely chopped bacon rind and grated cheese are fantastic for small birds such as wrens.

Although fat is important, do also provide a grain mix or nuts to maintain a balanced diet. Sparrows, finches and nuthatches will enjoy prising the seeds out of sunflower heads, and whilst no-mess mixes are more expensive, the inclusion of de-husked sunflower hearts means there is less waste. Watch out though for inferior mixes which are often padded out with lentils.

In terms of delivery methods, use wire mesh feeders for peanuts and seed feeders for other seed. Specially designed feeders are needed for the tiny niger seed, loved by goldfinches, and feed placed on a wire mesh held just off the ground will entice ground-feeding birds such as robins and dunnocks.

On the other hand, thrushes and blackbirds are known to favour fruit over nuts and seeds, so scatter over-ripe apples, raisins and song-bird mixes on the ground for them. Maybe in the spring, consider planting berrying and fruiting trees and shrubs such as Malus, Cotoneaster and Pyracantha to fill gaps ready for next year.

Garden Maintenance for Other Species

As temperatures continue to drop, keep an eye on water sources. If ponds freeze, melt a hole in the ice to allow the wildlife to drink, and enter and exit the water. Simply fill a saucepan with hot water and sit it on the ice until a hole has been melted. Try not to hit or crack ice as this can send shockwaves through the water that harms wildlife. Additionally, provide a shallow dish or container of water at ground level, for those who do not venture near your pond (or if there aren’t any nearby) this will benefit other garden wildlife that needs to drink, as well as birds.

If you can, put a few clay (not concrete) roof tiles in the pond to provide cover for overwintering frogs and other aquatic wildlife.

If you have a compost pile in your garden, be careful when turning it. The centre can be a warm and cosy winter resort for lots of animals such as a frogs and toads, so let them enjoy a little heat by neglecting your garden duties for a couple of months. You can make a hedgehog house from wood piles, which will give spiky friends somewhere to hide, sleep and hunt for insects. Shelter is essential for a hedgehog’s survival during the winter so choose a quiet spot that is unlikely to be disturbed from November to March when they will be hibernating. On the theme of neglecting, try to leave healthy herbaceous and hollow-stemmed plants unpruned until early spring as these can provide homes for overwintering insects. If this isn’t possible, consider making an insect or bug hotel and put up in a sheltered position for any ladybirds and lacewings looking for a place to overwinter. 

The RHS encourages gardeners to make a significant contribution to supporting wildlife over winter, and it is surprisingly easy to do something to help garden wildlife in the lean and cold months of winter. Something as simple as filling up your bird feeder, leaving your compost heap to nature or adding a few late-flowering plants will attract more animals and ensure your new guests are safe, fed and watered until the cold months have passed.

Even if you carry out just a few of these tasks, it can make a difference. It is also a great way to watch wildlife even in the smallest of gardens or balconies, often at very close quarters so grab your binoculars or camera, and see what you can spot from the comfort of your own home.

 
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Janet Hill

I’m Janet, and I live at the foot of the beautiful Welsh Hills with my children Mary, 21, and Mark, 18. We share our four-acre plot with our six dogs, six cats , four hens, an assortment of wild ducks and all the other wonderful wildlife that visits our garden.

A Winter Nature Walk: What to look out for as we move from Autumn to Winter

The evenings are drawing in, the woodburner is lit more often than not and the aga is coming in to its own. Yes, it’s true: Winter is definitely on its way.

A Winter Nature Walk: What to look out for as we move from Autumn to Winter - The Hills Countryside Blog

And while part of me agrees with Edith Sitwell and her declaration that “Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home”, I also think it’s unnecessary to write off our glorious Welsh countryside and resign ourselves totally to hibernating during the colder months. What do the Scandinavians say - that there’s no bad weather, just bad clothes?

Yes, things are definitely a bit bare out there; yes, it’s definitely colder. But nature hasn’t left –it’s just looking a little different at this time of year. There’s still plenty to do and see - as long as you’re decked out in the right gear, of course. So don your hats and layer up; it’s time to rally the troops and get them outside for a nature walk!

And when I say the troops, I particularly mean little ones. It’s a statistic that’s been bandied about a lot in the last couple of years, but I’m still reeling from the fact that three-quarters of UK children spend less time outdoors on average than prison inmates. Shocking, isn’t it? We know that being outside is important to both our mental and physical health, and yet the poll (funded by Persil, as part of the detergent brand’s Dirt is Good campaign) also found children spent twice as long playing on screens as playing outside.

And that, I’ll be honest, makes me feel rather sad.

So what better activity to keep little minds engaged and little bodies active over the coming months than a thrilling scavenger hunt? Fresh air, even cold fresh air, makes such a difference in attentiveness, and allows children to release their pent-up energy, so grab your wellies and see how many of these you can discover in the coming weeks...

Birds seeking out food

Whether you venture no further than your own back garden feeder or head for the woods for a dramatic conifer backdrop, you’re likely to spot the yellow-striped heads of little goldcrests if you keep your eyes peeled. And make sure you have your camera primed and ready to snap a red-breasted robin for this year’s Christmas card!

Conkers and Pine Cones

Collect the biggest ones you can find and introduce the children to Conker Wars - supervised by the grown-ups, of course. Or you could always gather pine cones, acorns and greenery to take home for some more sedate festive craft activities if you prefer. Wreaths, flatlay photographs, table centres etc - Pinterest is full of inspiration!

Squirrels foraging for nuts

Can you spot a bushy tail darting up a tree or perhaps spot one jumping from branch to branch? Squirrels will be stocking up their hoard at the moment and the lack of foliage on the trees make them easy to spot.

Winter berries such as holly and mistletoe

It’s the time to get in the festive mood, so look out for balls of greenery covered in clusters of waxy, white berries growing high in the bare branches of host trees (mistletoe), or a holly bush covered in glossy red berries. And you could always teach them the words to holly and mistletoe-related songs and carols once you get back home for extra festive points.

Toadstools and Mushrooms Some of our most colourful fungi appear in winter. Look out for little scarlet elf cups among the leaf litter, bright yellow brain fungus sprouting from branches, and purple jelly fungus on rotting wood. Of course, don’t touch or pick them without knowing exactly what you are dealing with, but do let the curiosity add to the mystery and adventure...

Animal Tracks

In softer soil, mud and even snow you might be able to discover some animal tracks. Have fun making up stories about that lone wolf looking for its pack or a Gruffalo searching out a mouse.

Back at home, compare your observations and finds over a cup of hot chocolate. Did you find anything new or exciting, or discover a track you’ve never been down before? You could even encourage the children to write their imagined tales down and illustrate their very own beautiful winter story books or poems. And if I’ve managed to convince you that a winter walk can be fun, productive and educational family time (while ensuring you’re getting your daily dose of fresh air), keep an eye on the events pages over at countryside business directory and blog The Hills for activities both indoors and out for all the family; with Snowdonia Walking festival and national Tree Dressing Day coming up, you’re bound to be inspired to venture outdoors!

 
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Janet Hill

I’m Janet, and I live at the foot of the beautiful Welsh Hills with my children Mary, 21, and Mark, 18. We share our four-acre plot with our six dogs, six cats, four hens, an assortment of wild ducks and all the other wonderful wildlife that visits our garden.

Keep Britain Buzzing

Bees are at risk in the UK. Here’s why we should be fighting to keep our stripey friends safe.

I’ve always been a big fan of bees. These industrious little insects are my spirit creatures - always busy, always productive and always making things beautiful (they just happen to use pollen, whereas I favour textiles and ceramics!).

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But the worrying news is that in Wales bee numbers have been declining for 30 years, reflecting a global trend: bees are in trouble. Their environments are becoming hostile through the use of pesticides, climate change and expanding urban areas and their food sources are in decline. We can survive, just, without bees, but our diet would be pretty boring and our landscapes would certainly be drab without their hard work.

We’d also be missing the whopping £400 million they contribute to the economy each year and we’d struggle to produce our current volumes of crops - a third of UK food is pollen-dependent.

However it’s not all doom and gloom. As a nation that proudly promotes and supports sustainability, Wales is ahead of the curve when it comes to protecting pollinators. At the Royal Welsh Show in 2012, Alun Davies committed the Welsh Government to producing an action plan to protect pollinators, focusing on education in schools, ensuring allotment space across the country and ensuring bee-friendly land management practices.

The Action Plan for Pollinators in Wales was launched in 2013, and the educational initiative Caru Gwenyn (Bee Friendly) aimed at community organisations was also introduced. You might have noticed the work of The Natural Buzz Project in your area; a Keep Wales Tidy project which takes undervalued green spaces (e.g. patches of grass on industrial estates, outside hospitals and schools and road verges) and transforms them from sterile mown sites into masses of wildflowers.

The Wales Biodiversity Partnership provides a thorough overview of partnership pollinator projects taking place right across the country and provides lots of ideas for how we can make a difference to bee populations in our own areas - find out more here.

And wherever you’re based, you can always take a look at the Friends of the Earth Easy Ways to Help Bees tips, where you’ll find gardening ideas, petitions, bee-friendly veg deliveries and gifts to help keep Britain buzzing. You can also search for beekeeping groups and honey producers in your local area to find out more.

In North Wales, we have a surprising number of organisations and businesses working locally to promote and celebrate the work of the humble bee. For example, Kate Hayward at Felin Honeybees - an award-winning farm business teaching people of all ages the importance of honeybees for our environment - offers information and training from Anglesey.

Conwy Beekeepers also organise taster days and courses via their website and the comments are testimony to the number of beekeeping converts they’ve welcomed to their fold. “I simply loved the day,” writes Bob, “a statement in itself which articulates a rare level of enthusiasm from me!”

Aspiring beekeepers can place an order with The Honey Bee Company, who provide everything from a nucleus colony to their best-selling mated Welsh Black Honeybee Queen, with a bee-keeping hardware range coming soon.

And if the enthusiasts are to be believed, beekeeping is a surprisingly therapeutic activity. Lots of time spent outdoors, sharing experiences with other beekeepers, the sense of being part of Britain’s rural history and the satisfaction of producing a valuable foodstuff: honey.

Ah yes, honey - we haven’t even mentioned this delicious liquid gold yet. Well again, the good news is that lots of beekeepers in North Wales means that there’s plenty of the good stuff to go around. Mere Brook Honey sells bees to beekeepers and produces their own honey on the Wirral and in North Wales; they also have a brilliant 2-minute ‘Day in the Life of a Beekeeper’ video on the website filmed using a Go-Pro camera which I challenge you to watch and not be bitten by the beekeeping bug.

There’s also Brian Sacre at Celtic Honeysmith, who produces a number of artisan honey products including Natural Raw Honey, Honey Pickled Shallots and Honey Pickled Onions. You can pop along to the annual Conwy Honey Fair which celebrates North Wales’ long-standing connection with bees and beekeeping and provides an opportunity for local beekeepers to sell their bee and honey-related wares - it takes place in September each year, so get it in your diary for 2019.

And finally, there’s also the National Beekeeping Centre Wales at the Welsh Food Centre in the Conwy Valley. Here you can meet the bees from May to September, do a beekeeping course or craft workshop or treat yourself to a honey soap or scented candle - but the best news is that, whatever you choose to do or spend your money on, you’ll be helping secure the future of bees in Wales.

 
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Janet Hill

I’m Janet, and I live at the foot of the beautiful Welsh Hills with my children Mary, 21, and Mark, 18. We share our four-acre plot with our six dogs, six cats, four hens, an assortment of wild ducks and all the other wonderful wildlife that visits our garden.