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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!