Amgueddfa Blog

Lambing in the life and economy of rural Wales and its farming families

Gareth Beech, 24 March 2023

Farming families in Wales who primarily keep sheep are dependent upon lambing for their main income for the year. A successful lambing season is essential for their farming livelihoods. A large proportion of the farm’s income will be from the sale of the lambs for meat. It’s a period of bringing new life on the farm, of care and nurturing the new-born lambs, long hours, sometimes in difficult conditions, to generate income for the farming families. 


The family farm still retains great importance in the Welsh rural economy.  

Many farms have sustained generations of the same families and have been an essential part of the Welsh rural economy and life through producing food, employment, and supporting ancillary rural industries and crafts for equipment, supplies and machinery.  


Lambing and harvesting, the busiest periods on the farm, still often include all the members of the farming families. Wives and children are part of the care of the flock, delivering the lambs, their care and rearing, along with the essential tasks of feeding and watering, clearing out pens, applying treatments, and driving the ewe mothers and lambs out to the fields when strong enough. It is now common for a partner to have employment elsewhere with a separate income from farming. They still often work on the farm as well. Lambing continues twenty-four hours a day. It is unpredictable at what time of day or night a sheep might give birth during the lambing period.   


Traditional husbandry skills and knowledge, passed down over generations are combined with modern nutrition and animal health treatments.  The satisfaction, pleasure and relief of seeing new life arrive and flourish, is combined with the tiredness of long hours and night shifts, working in muck and mud, or in cold and wet conditions outside. There are the disappointments and frustrations of losses, which will directly affect income and profitability. The regular, repetitive tasks of clearing out pens, spraying disinfectant, laying new straw bedding, are essential for preventing diseases such as E-coli amongst the vulnerable new-born lambs.   


Modern lambing more likely to be done inside now in large sheds, rather than out in the fields as in the past. Lambing can take place in batches, timed by when the rams released to groups of ewes, to spread the work and lessen the intensity. Scanning ewes in advance will show which ewes are pregnant and with how many lambs, so they can be grouped and given the necessary attention and care. Ewes not pregnant would be kept on the fields. The timing of lambing takes place in Wales can be influenced by location, altitude and weather conditions, or whether aimed to sell at a specific time or for a particular demand.  


Welsh breeds such as Welsh Mountain and Beulah continue to be popular in upland and mountainous areas. The drive for better quality lambs to meet tastes at home and for export markets in Europe, the Middle East and Asia has included using continental breeds such as Texels originally from Holland. Breeds on upland and hill farms in particular need to be hardy and be able withstand cold and wet conditions. Some new breeds haven’t flourished, being vulnerable to conditions such as foot rot because of the not being resilient in a damp climate.  


Lambing, like all aspects of modern agriculture, has evolved considerably based on the application of science and technology. The body for promoting the sale of Welsh lamb, Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales, describes the contemporary approach: ‘As one of the world’s leading producers of lamb, Wales has been at the forefront of developments in the sheep industry. As consumers’ tastes change, so has farming. Agriculture has also evolved, combining traditional husbandry passed down through generations in tune with Wales’s outstanding natural environment with new innovations to make the most of best practice in terms of nutrition and animal health.’  


Nutrition and animal health treatments aim to maximise carcase value, and new methods based on the results of research and development. One method is that of ‘sponging’, using progestogen, a synthetic version of the naturally occurring hormone progesterone. Flocks can be brought into season earlier and at the same time, lambing at a very specific time period, and earlier in the year. It can allow for more planning of labour and resources, and to produce lambs when there may be fewer new lambs for market. It can also mean a very intense, short period, especially if there are twins and triplets requiring more time and attention, or ewes with complications. 


The total value of Welsh lamb exports in 2022 was £171.5 million, an increase from £154.7 million in 2013. 


The number of sheep in Wales went over 10 million in 2017 for the first time in the twenty first century. Sheep numbers had previously fallen from about 12 million after the end of government payments to support agriculture based on the number of animals kept.  


How lambing in Wales will be in the future could be influenced by several factors: the number of sheep; consumer preferences; sustainability; and climate change. New trade agreements might offer new possibilities but also increased competition from cheaper imports. Exports of Welsh lamb to the Unites States finally resumed in 2022, and the countries of the Gulf and China are thought to have potential for increased exports. Changes to government payments in Wales to the Sustainable Farming Scheme will be based on environmental benefits and restoring bio-diversity, as part of a sustainable agriculture industry. Perhaps it is still partly a way of life, with a professional business approach, adapting to meet the nature of markets, with entrepreneurship to create new products for a sustainable and profitable industry.  


Most lambs will be sold for meat from 4 to 12 months old. At St Fagans, most of the female lambs will be either sold or kept as pedigree breeding stock. Most of the males will go for meat with a few of the best sold as breeding rams.  


In 2020, Welsh lamb was given Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status by the UK Department of Food Rural Affairs and Agriculture (DEFRA). Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) is a status awarded by the UK Government that protects and promotes named regional food products that have a reputation or noted characteristics specific to that area. It means that only lambs born and reared in Wales and slaughtered in approved abattoirs are legally described as Welsh Lamb. This superseded the previous EU PGI status awarded in 2003.  


In an upland and mountainous country unsuited to many types of agriculture but where the keeping of sheep flourishes, the annual lambing will always be an important part of it, for introducing new life, providing a viable farming business, and sustaining family farms. 

March is for mulching

Luciana Skidmore, 16 March 2023

If you are visiting St. Fagans this month you will notice an army of gardeners and volunteers marching around the gardens with wheelbarrows full of organic matter to condition the soil of our beautiful gardens. As winter comes to an end, spring arrives with a promise of growth. This is a crucial moment in the gardening calendar to prepare for the warmer months ahead. 

Because of the over-emittance of greenhouse gases, the Earth’s surface temperature is increasing rapidly. We are noticing summer months that are hotter and drier than ever, only last year we witnessed temperatures around 40°C in some areas of the UK. The excessive heat and prolonged drought have devastating effects on our local flora and fauna. 

One of the most important tasks for this month is to mulch the soil by adding a layer of organic matter to the soil surface. Mulching brings numerous benefits to plants including moisture retention in periods of drought, weed suppression, improvement of soil structure and fertility, reducing the need for artificial fertilisers, prevention of soil erosion, and encouragement of beneficial organisms such as earthworms, soil bacteria and fungi. Additionally, it attracts wildlife to our gardens, one of my favourite memories is of being followed by Robins as we mulch the garden in spring. They patiently wait for a feast of earthworms, while gifting us with their beautiful bird song announcing the arrival of spring. 

There are many different types of mulching materials and each with their own benefits and uses. Most of our gardens are mulched with well-rotted farmyard manure sourced from Llwyn-yr-eos farm in St. Fagans and from a local farmer. The manure is gradually incorporated into the soil by the activity of earthworms and other microorganisms, which improves the soil structure and supplies the plants with nutrients. This nitrogen rich material is ideal to be used on herbaceous borders, vegetable beds, roses and newly planted trees and shrubs.

However not all plants like nutrient rich mulches, plants that are adapted to growing in hot and dry conditions often do not cope well with excessive moisture and high fertility. For example, in the Herb Garden where we have Mediterranean plants such as lavender, rosemary, sage and thyme we have opted for mulching the beds with gravel. This is an inorganic material that does not break down; therefore it does not release nutrients to the soil. In addition, gravel is great at promoting good drainage, suppressing weeds, and adding aesthetic value to the garden.  

This year we are trying new methods of mulching as a sustainable way to utilise the maximum of our local resources. We have started using raw wool provided by the Llwyn-yr-Eos farm to mulch the vines in the greenhouse. This will help with water conservation and prevention of weeds. Besides the wool fleece degrades slowly releasing nutrients into the soil and feeding the vines. Another advantage is that wool can help retain heat during colder months, keeping the root of the vines warm in winter. 

In March we cut back the ornamental grasses and perennials of the Dutch garden and a large amount of material usually ends up in the compost heap. This year we decided to skip this process and instead we added the dried grass clippings directly to the surface of the pumpkin patch. We have sprinkled a fine layer of manure on top to weigh down the grasses and prevent them from blowing in the wind. This will also aid the process of decomposition by introducing nitrogen to this carbon rich material.  While the farmers make hay for a rainy day, the gardeners mulch with hay for a hotter day.

When choosing mulches or growing mediums for your garden, prefer materials from sustainable and local sources in order reduce the carbon footprint from transportation. It is also important to avoid peat-based composts at all costs. The extraction of peat has a negative impact in the environment, it destroys the natural habitat of many species that live in peatlands, besides it releases tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere contributing to the greenhouse effect. 
For the home gardener the most sustainable and cost-effective option is to mulch using homemade compost or leaf mould. Why not try making your own compost using kitchen and garden waste? You will be surprised at the benefits you can reap from your compost heap. 




How to measure snow

Penny Tomkins, 8 March 2023

Hello Bulb Buddies,

Thank you for the comments and observations you sent in with last week’s weather readings. I’m expecting that some of Friday’s weather comments will mention snow, as many areas across the UK will have woken up to snow and ice this morning. I thought this might be a good time to look at how Meteorologists (weather scientists) measure snow. 

It is a lot trickier to measure the amount of snow that falls than it is to measure the amount of rain. This is because snow misbehaves! Snow is often blown by the wind into drifts, which causes some areas of deep snow and less snow in the areas around it. Because the snow fall is uneven the measurements from these places will be wrong. This is why we have to measure snow on flat surfaces, in the open and away from areas where drifts happen. Snow also likes to play games with Meteorologists who want to measure it, it melts into water and re-freezes into ice. This means that the snow measured on the ground isn’t always the same as the amount of snow that has fallen. Another problem is that new snow settles on old snow, so it is difficult to tell how much snow has fallen in one day from the snow that fell the day before.

Meteorologists have to take all these tricks the snow plays, and work around them to discover how much snow has fallen. They look at snow fall (the amount of snow that falls in one day) and snow depth (how deep the total snow level is, old snow and new snow). One way that Meteorologists measure snow fall is to use a piece of ply wood. They place the wood in an open location away from areas where snow drifts occur, and measure the snow on the board at 6hr intervals, clearing the snow from the board each time they measure it. This means they are only measuring the snow from that day, which will tell them how much snow has fallen on that day in that area.

Snow fall can also be measured in its melted state, as water. This means that you can use your rain gauge to measure the water equivalent of snow fall. If you only get a bit of snow then it should melt in your rain gauge anyway. But if you get a lot of snow, take your rain gauge inside to the warm and wait for the snow to melt into water. Then measure the water in the same way as you have done each week and report this as rain fall in your weather logs. 

If you have snow and enough time for an extra experiment – why not have a go at measuring snow depth? To do this all you need is a ruler (also known as a snow stick!). Place the snow stick into the snow until it touches the surface underneath and read the depth of the snow. Take these measurements from flat surfaces (benches work well) in open areas and away from snow drifts. You need to take at least three separate measurements to work out the average snow depth in your area. You work out the average measurement by adding the different readings together and dividing them by the number of measurements. So, if I measured the snow depth of three surfaces at 7cm, 9cm and 6cm, I would add these together (7+9+6 =22) and divide that by three, because there are three readings (22÷3=7.33). So, 7.33cm would be my average reading for snow depth on that date. 

Weather stations such as the MET Office have come up with new ways of measuring snow depth, using new technologies. The picture on the right shows one of the MET Offices snow stations. These use laser sensors to measure how deep the snow is on the flat surface placed below it. This means that Meteorologists can collect readings from all over the country at the push of a button, which is far more reliable and a lot easier than sending people out into the cold with snow sticks! The map on the right shows how many snow stations the MET office has and where these are, is there one close to you? 

If you have snow and measure the snow fall with your rain gauge or the snow depth with a snow stick, then please tell me in the ‘comments’ section when you are logging your weekly records. I would be very interested to know what the snow depth is compared to the snow fall collected in your rain gauge.

Keep up the good work Bulb Buddies, 

Professor Plant

Spring in St Fagans gardens

Elin Barker - Trainee Garden Conservator, 5 March 2023

As spring draws nearer, each day tells a new story in the garden. The snowdrops gracefully bow out and make way for the colourful crocuses, primroses and daffodils. The hellebores have arrived too, with their glorious cup shaped flowers and intricate petal patterns. They provide a much-needed burst of colour and glow - even on the greyest of spring days.  

As is usual at this time of year, the gardeners of St Fagans have been hard at work planning new borders and preparing the grounds for the new season. This year, however, the looming threat of climate change and the pressing issues of water scarcity have pushed the team to explore innovative ways of designing water-efficient gardens that can flourish in even the driest conditions.  

One such creative solution we’ve developed is the "silver border," which will be a unique garden area that will showcase plants with silvery or grey foliage that have evolved to naturally thrive in drought-prone environments. This light leaf colouration effectively reflects the intense sunlight, shielding the plant from its harmful effects. Some of these resilient plants also feature a fine layer of hairs on their leaves or stems, which trap moisture around the plant tissues, helping them survive drier climates. The silver border will not only serve as a practical water conservation method but will also add a visually striking and unique element to the garden. 

Another recent project of ours is the wildlife shrub border, which can be found on route to the Italian Garden. The concept behind this shrub border is to provide a thriving habitat for a wide range of wildlife. Once established, the border will help to serve as shelter and protection for birds, insects and mammals. We’ve chosen shrubs, such as Sambucus nigra, Holodiscus discolor and Viburnum opulus that have nectar rich flowers which will support pollinators. Additionally, as the shrubs mature, they will provide a valuable source of food for wildlife in the form of seeds and berries. 

You may notice that the Dutch garden near the Castle undergoes a drastic transformation each spring as the ornamental grasses and perennials are cut back hard before the new growth begins. During the winter season, we opt to leave the seed pods and stems intact as they provide a great habitat for wildlife and serve as essential elements of the garden's structure; offering a range of captivating textures and seasonal colours. We have been working hard to remove all the old growth and stems from the previous year, which will encourage healthy new growth from the base of the plants. This year we decided to reuse the waste grass clippings as a mulch on the pumpkin bed, this will help suppress the weeds and conserve moisture in the ground. 

As we move forward, it is imperative to consider how we can practice gardening in harmony with nature. Gardening involves striving to achieve a balance that results in creating spaces that are not only visually appealing but also encompass complex, sustainable systems beneath the surface. 

The Changing Seasons

Penny Tomkins, 3 March 2023

Hello Bulb Buddies,

Thank you to all schools who have shared their weather data so far. Remember to contact me if you need any help with this. All schools that enter data to the website will receive prizes at the end of the project, including super scientist pencils and certificates!

As spring approaches, I thought we could look at the changing seasons. There are four seasons in the year. Spring, summer, autumn and winter. In the UK, spring begins in March. When in March depends on which definition you use. The Meteorological definition sees Spring start on 1 March and the Astronomical definition sees it start on 20 March (the Spring Equinox). Spring is when most flowers bloom, the weather gets steadily warmer, and many animals have their young. Lambs in the fields are a good sign that spring has arrived, why not follow the Lamb Cam at St Fagans National Museum of History to see how many lambs are born there!

The summer comes in full force from June to September, and this is when we have the warmest weather and the longest daylight hours. Luckily for you, it’s also when you get your longest school holidays!

Autumn takes hold from late September, and this is when the days become shorter and the weather begins to get colder. This is when the leaves change colour from greens to oranges, reds and browns and fall from the trees. And, when animals like squirrels hoard food for the long winter ahead. Winter arrives again in December, and stays until mid-March.

Do you know why we get seasons? What causes the weather to change so dramatically throughout the year? Well, it’s because the Earth is turning around the Sun at an angle. The picture to the right shows the earth in relation to the sun. The earth turns (rotates) on its axis (imagine a line joining the North and South poles) as it moves around (orbits) the Sun.

It takes the Earth 365 days to travel once around the sun. The length of a planets year is the time it takes for it to complete one orbit of its star. So a year on Earth is measured as the passing of 365 days. 

The picture to the right shows the Earth’s rotation around the Sun. The axis is shown by the white line at the North and South poles. You can see that the axis (white line) is at a different angle to the Earth’s orbit (shown by the white arrows). This means that each day we are at a slightly different angle to the Sun than we were the day before. This is what causes a difference in the number of daylight hours we get. Fewer daylight hours (winter) means less light and heat, making this time of the year colder. More daylight hours (summer) means more light and heat, which makes it warmer!

Many of you have noticed that temperature increases throughout the morning, and decreases in the late afternoon. This is because the heat from the sun gradually warms our surroundings throughout the day. Materials and living things absorb this energy, and become warmer themselves, heating the air around them. The sun is at its highest point around noon, so this is when the earth gets the most light and heat energy from the sun. In the afternoon the heat and light from the sun gradually decreases. However, the materials and living things around you will continue to radiate heat, gradually cooling throughout the afternoon and evening. This is why the temperature is often higher between 2-3pm than it is at midday. This is also why temperatures are lower in winter than they are in summer, because the days are shorter and as such our surroundings receive less heat and light energy from the sun.  

The UK is in what is known as the ‘North hemisphere’, this means we are closer to the North Pole than the South Pole. Notice that in the picture the North pole (the white line pointing up) is leaning towards the Sun in summer and away from the sun in winter. This angle is what causes the change in daylight hours as the Earth orbits the sun over the course of the year.

Other countries experience the changes in daylight hours at different times of the year. In Australia it is summer in December! And in Iceland they have continuous sunlight for days in a row in the summer and darkness for as long in the winter! Imagine having sunlight at midnight!

Keep up the good work Bulb Buddies,

Professor Plant