The Trouble with Lambing: Farm Gates and Woolly Zombies
Mention lambing and people immediately smile, utter the obligatory ‘aaahhhh’, and give themselves a mental hug. I can see their minds now, full of images of impossibly pristine, fluffy lambs skipping along beside their doting mother. A picture of spring and idyllic rural bliss.
Mention even the approach of lambing to me and my bones grow cold like someone opened all the windows in a blizzard. I physically shudder and make a mental note to rewire the heat lamp that Suffolk ewe of Iwan’s rammed into last year as she rid herself of the lamb from the pen next door. And then I make a mental note never to own Suffolks.
Lambing is an emotional rollercoaster, the miracle of new life is often, sadly followed by the loss of another. It’s completely exhausting – and when you’re tired and emotional, the slightest thing can send you off into full scale meltdown. I have a few pet hates that send me over the edge at lambing, and yet some are so trivial that at a different time of the year I’ll laugh out loud. Gates are to me the enfant terrible of the modern field management systems. (One of the funniest things I’ve heard was a lady asking why farmers always put their gates where it’s muddy?)
Appeasing the gate gods
Gates are not inanimate objects. They were put on earth to frustrate, irritate and cause a bout of the screaming abdabs. To ewes in a field, the sound of the quad bike (otherwise known among sheep as ‘the holy vessel of feed’) is the equivalent of Justin Bieber approaching a gaggle of screaming 12-year-olds.
Getting out alive becomes the main aim – and the gate becomes the pathway from the nether world to one of salvation. A pathway to the only safe haven you have open to you (excuse the pun) should the gate gods allow you rightful passage. Seventy ewes shed themselves of all semblance of domestication and become marauding Vikings hell bent on reaching sheep Valhalla in the form of CCF centenary sheep nuts. Pillaging and plundering before you can make your hasty escape, hopefully alive and hopefully with all limbs intact.
I pray each day during lambing for the gate gods to be kind. Crossing fields without feed at this time of year is not for the faint hearted. Nerves of steel are required. You may think I’m exaggerating here, seriously I’m not. You speed as fast as you dare toward the field gate knowing you have to skid to a halt, lock the dodgy brake, jump off the bike, jump back on the bike because it’s still rolling, re-engage break, jump off the bike again, dash to open the gate, realise the bike is too close to the gate to enable it to open, jump back on the bike, push the gear lever to reverse, realise the brake is engaged and disengage before re-engaging and throw open the gate as you glance behind to see seventy ewes heading at full speed toward you like a scene from Zombie Apocalypse.
And suddenly there it is. That inimitable clatter that fills your ears, and then your soul with dread. As you scramble hastily back onto the bike, the empty, metallic, unmistakable sound of the gate gently closing itself in its latch behind you. Because the fencers were so good at their job, they tightened the hinge just enough to make the gate swing softly shut.
Trapped in the fleecy danger zone
You are lost. The most you can hope for now is that you can make it back onto the bike before seventy ewes surround you. Like woolly sharks they circle, waiting for one false blow of the wind to rattle the empty feed bag you’d tucked into the front rack of the bike on your previous visit.
And then they are on you. If they don’t bowl you over before you get to the bike, they’ll deafen you into submission. Seventy ewes all bellowing in skilled, well-versed, synchronised groups. Frisking your waterproofs with their hard noses for anything potentially edible. You thank mother nature that (as yet) they remain firmly vegetarian. They stand between you and the gate. Between you and the salvation of the next field, which now looks so far from reach.
Even your dog stands no chance against these marauding mothers, who turn into the equivalent of Boxing Day shoppers as the doors open on the Trafford Centre at the faintest whiff of a snack. He cowers behind you looking pleadingly for help and guidance while you say, ‘Watch ‘em, Ricky!’ in a desperate attempt to give him courage. The trembling of your voice betrays you, and he thinks, ‘I can’t not watch them; they’re climbing in the back box with me’. You cower together, waiting for the cacophony to die down.
Slowly and reluctantly they start to drift away, throwing cursory glances your way as they retreat – disgruntled but ready to re-engage in the throng should the slightest flap of that empty feed bag reach their attentive ears. You cling on tightly to the corner of the bag, keeping it as still as you are able as the wind picks up around you. You are the prey and, like the scene in the kitchen in Jurassic Park, they are the slightly fluffier velociraptors. They smell your fear.
Escape to victory
As the horde skulks away, you use your experience and fine-tuned judgement to assess the distance between you and them – and then you and the gate. Slow, deliberate movements are required. Anything too quick, or one false move and they will be onto you. They’ll know your plan in a second and work as a team to overcome you.
As you amble nonchalantly toward the gate, the movement diverts their attention from the retreat. They focus on you, checking your next move. You have no choice; you must take fear in your grasp. You throw open the gate and launch yourself back on the bike. Be kind gate gods, be kind. Still in reverse, you jolt backwards and Ricky headbutts you from behind. But pain must become your friend now. You push the gear lever into drive, open the throttle and like the brave hero you have become, plunge yourself, your dog and the bike through the closing gap as the gate swings shut behind you.
The woolly zombies resume their futile meandering, bleating and bemoaning their defeat. You, dear warrior, have surpassed all expectation, accomplished your mission in making it and out of the ewe field alive and saved the life of your best friend in the process. You and Ricky breathe a heavy sigh of relief, but deep down in the depth of your stomach, you both know tomorrow is another day.
Be kind gate gods, be kind.