Amgueddfa Blog: Lambcam

Sheep Farming In The Past

Meredith Hood - PhD student Zooarchaeology, 22 March 2022

What is my project about? 

Hello! I’m Meredith, a PhD student working at Cardiff University and Amgueddfa Cymru. I am a zooarchaeologist, which means I study animal remains from archaeological sites to find out more about the relationship between humans and animals in the past. So, Lambcam seemed like a great opportunity to share a little bit about my project, and how we can learn about sheep farming in the past! 

For my project, I am studying the animal bones from the site of Llanbedrgoch on Anglesey.  This was an early medieval settlement, occupied from the 5th to 11th centuries AD. Archaeologists recovered over 50,000 pieces of animal bone from Llanbedrgoch, which will provide a really valuable insight into farming practices and diet at this time. You can read about my research in a little more detail here

Image: Volunteers washing animal remains from Llanbedrgoch.

Volunteers washing animal remains from Llanbedrgoch. ©Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum of Wales.

 

I am currently recording all the bones into a database and trying to identify what animals they came from. This can be tricky, particularly when the bones are very broken. Sheep bones can also be an extra challenge to identify as they look extremely similar to goat bones!  

Image: Recording animal bones in the bioarchaeology laboratory at Cardiff University.

Recording animal bones in the bioarchaeology laboratory at Cardiff University. (Photo: Meredith Hood)

How can we find about sheep farming in the past?  

Sheep remains can tell us lots of information about how sheep were farmed and used in the past. For example, we can estimate the age at which a sheep died by looking at how worn their teeth are, or whether their bones have fused. Sheep that were kept for a long time as adults may have been used for their wool or milk. 

Image: A modern sheep mandible/jawbone (top) compared to an early medieval fragment of a sheep jawbone from Llanbedrgoch, Anglesey (bottom).

A modern sheep mandible/jawbone (top) compared to an early medieval fragment of a sheep jawbone from Llanbedrgoch, Anglesey (bottom) (Photo: Meredith Hood)

Image: Two sheep humeri (upper arm) bones. The bone on the left is from a juvenile, and the bone on the right is from an adult.

Two sheep humeri (upper arm) bones. The bone on the left is from a juvenile, and the bone on the right is from an adult. (Photo: Meredith Hood) 

We can also look for things such as butchery or burning marks on bones which might tell us that lamb or mutton was eaten. Certain body parts, like the pelvis, can tell us the sex of the sheep, which can suggest whether breeding might have taken place on a site. 

Image: Part of a sheep metatarsal showing black burning marks.

Part of a sheep metatarsal showing black burning marks. (Photo: Meredith Hood)

What do we know about sheep farming in early medieval Wales?  

Unfortunately, animal bones from early medieval Wales haven’t survived very well in the soil. But from archaeological sites where they have survived, it appears that sheep were predominantly being kept for their secondary products like wool and milk.  

Historical texts can also give us some clues. Law texts surviving from the 13th century which have been attributed to Hywel Dda (a 10th century king) describe, for example, how much sheep were worth (‘One Penny is the worth of a lamb whilst it shall be sucking’1) and that ‘fat’ sheep should be given to the king as render payments.   

The large number of bones from Llanbedrgoch is really exciting and should provide us with more information about early medieval Welsh sheep farming, so watch this space! 

Image: Illustration of sheep from the Laws of Hywel Dda, mid-thirteenth century.

Illustration of sheep from the Laws of Hywel Dda, mid-thirteenth century. From: Peniarth MS 28 f. 25 v. (Image: Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru – The National Library of Wales, Public Domain)

[1] Owen, A. (1841). Ancient Laws and Institutes of Wales. London, p.715

Welcome to Lambcam 2022

Bernice Parker, 11 March 2022

We have over 250 breeding ewes in the flock and we expect over 350 lambs – so this a very busy time of year for the team that care for our sheep. There are experienced staff on hand throughout the day and night once things get going in the lambing shed.

So, what does a normal birth look like? Lambing is an unpredictable business, so it can vary wildly – but here are some of the things you might see:

Labour:

  • Water bag (intact or burst) and mucus hanging out of the back of the sheep before birth.
  • Pair of feet protruding from the ewe’s back end.
  • In early labour, the ewe will be restlessly getting up and down and pawing at the ground.
  • As labour progresses, she will usually get down to push and stay down. Her contractions will get stronger with lots of physical effort visible.
  • She may have her head thrown back, eyes wide and top lip curled back. This all normal and means that birth is hopefully imminent.
  • Normal labour can take anything from 30 minutes to many hours. The farm team try to keep the shed quiet and calm and allow the sheep to lamb naturally where possible. They will only intervene to protect the welfare of the ewe and her lambs.

Birth:

  • If the ewe has lambed naturally – both her and the lamb may lie still for a bit after the lamb is born. It’s been hard work for both of them, and all the lamb needs to be doing at this point is breathing. Ideally without the bag (amniotic sac) over its head.
  • As part of the birth, the bag will normally break and be pulled back off the lamb’s nostrils. Sometimes the farmers may nip in to help this process.
  • Lambs will be born covered in mucus, bits of the bag and sometimes smears of blood. This is all normal – the ewe will lick it clean, which will help stimulate the lamb to breathe and warm it up.
  • Sometimes they come out with a yellow or greenish coating. This is called meconium (first poo) where the lamb has opened its bowels before/during birth.

Newborn lambs:

  • Newborn lambs often twitch/shiver and thrash about. This is normal, and a good way to get the ewe’s attention. It’s also preparation for getting up and walking within minutes of being born. If you are a prey animal rather than a predator you need to be born ready to run (or hidden away in a den/nest).
  • Lambs will also twitch/sneeze repeatedly as they clear the birth fluids from their noses and throats. Sometimes the farmers stick a bit of straw up the lamb’s nostrils to make it sneeze and help this process. They will also pat the lamb, or ‘cycle’ one of its front legs to stimulate the coughing/breathing reflex.
  • If this doesn’t work - sometimes the farmers will swing a lamb by its back legs. This uses centrifugal force to help clear the lamb’s throat and get it to start breathing.
  • Newborn lambs get a squirt of disinfectant spray on their navels. This helps to stop them getting infections from the shed floor through the newly severed umbilicus.

Moving from the lambing shed to the nursery area:

  • After they have given birth, all ewes and their lambs will be moved out of the lambing shed.  
  • The farmers carry lambs by their legs:
    • Because they have much stronger legs, and are much lighter than human babies.
    • It avoids covering the lamb with human scent when they need to bond with their mothers.
    • The kindest way to move a ewe that has just given birth is to get her to follow her lambs. Sheep’s instinct is to run away from humans – not follow them. But they will usually follow their new lambs when the farmers hold them like this.
    • Each new family ges off to a bonding pen to get to know each other and be safe from the action in the lambing shed.
  • Ewes that are less keen to follow their lambs (or ones that just run off after giving birth) are usually yearlings lambing for the first time.
  • The yearlings are also much wilder, as they are less used to being handled with the flock. You might see the farmers use a different technique to move these sheep and their lambs:
    • They will remove the lambs first, so they don’t get trampled.
    • Then catch the ewe – which can still run fast even thugh she has just given birth!
    • They will walk these sheep out with their legs astride the ewe’s shoulders. This the best way to control the sheep and stop it doing a complete runner. (They are NOT sitting on them).
    • The whole family will be reunited in a bonding pen – where everything usually settles down quite quickly as the ewes come around to the idea of motherhood.

You can find out lots more about our sheep at lambing time in these blogs from previous years:

Lambcam 2021 - FAQs:   | National Museum Wales

A guide to lamb presentation - aka ‘what’s going on in there?’ | National Museum Wales

Wales' First Farmers

Jody Deacon, Curator: Prehistory (Collections and Access) , 26 February 2021

The launch of Lambcam 2021 seems like the perfect opportunity to think about the world of the very first farmers in Wales. This takes us back around 6000 years, to the beginning of the Neolithic period, a time when the hunting and gathering ways that had governed life for millennia were being challenged for the first time. Here we’ll take a quick look at three Early Neolithic innovations – farming, stone axes and pottery. 

Farming fundamentally altered how people interacted with their environment. The wild woodlands that covered most of Britain started to be cleared using axes and fire creating areas suitable for animals and new cereal crops. Seasonal rhythms that had previously encouraged movement around the landscape became tied to the demands of cultivating crops and raising animals for milk, meat, skins and hair. 

Today sheep are a familiar sight grazing on the Welsh hills but before 4000BCE people living in Britain would have been more used to aurochs (wild cattle measuring 1.8m at the shoulder), red deer, wild boar and wolves than exotic creatures like the domestic sheep! That said, a Neolithic sheep might challenge our modern expectations of what it is to be a sheep! They were much smaller with shorter, brown wiry hair rather than having the fluffy white wool we’re more familiar with – something like the modern Soay sheep found in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. 

Polished stone axes were another Neolithic innovation! The Public History and Archaeology department holds over 1,200 ‘roughouts’ and finished axes that have been found across Wales.  

Many stone axes come from specific rock outcrops that were returned to over many years. In these remote places, stone was quarried and roughly shaped before being taken elsewhere to be finished and polished into fine axes. Sometimes axes are found considerable distances from their original outcrops – this helps archaeologists to understand the ways different groups of Neolithic people might have been connected.  

Making and finishing a stone axe was a time-consuming business - it took hours of polishing with sand and water to create the smooth, polished surface.  

Some axes would have been practical tools, used for felling trees, shaping wood or even as weapons. Others are incredibly beautiful and finely made. These may have been used to show prestige, status and connection to special places or groups of people. 

Most of us have a favorite tea mug, breakfast bowl or plant pot so it’s hard to imagine a time when pottery did not exist. For the first farmers, pottery was the latest technology! Wet clay was shaped and changed into hard ceramic in a bonfire – this might have seemed magical at first, but it quickly caught on and pottery use spread across Wales. The first pots were simple bowls with rounded bases that were good for resting on the ground. They could be used for cooking, serving and storing food or to hold liquids such as soups and stews.  

Lambcam 2021 - FAQs:  

Bernice Parker, 19 February 2021

We're getting ready for another lambing season here at St Fagans and we know that lots of you will be looking forward to #lambcam. So, we've put together the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions that have come up over the years.  Here's the stuff you need to know when things start to hot up in the lambing shed: 

Why do the sheep head butt each other? 

The ewes are very grumpy, hormonal and territorial as they prepare to give birth. Sheep only have teeth on their bottom jaw with a hard pad on their upper jaw - good for nibbling grass, but useless for fighting biting. They're also not very good at kicking with their spindly little legs. So a good hefty headbutt is their preferred method of asserting themselves! 

Why have some of the sheep got blue straps on them? 

Like all pregnant animals, sheep can sometimes suffer from uterine prolapse (look away now if you're squeamish). It's usually caused by big lambs. The harness helps to hold everything in place until the ewe is ready to lamb. Most sheep can then lamb normally without expelling the uterus as well. 

Some of the sheep are limping or walking on their front knees – why don’t you do anything about it? 

Our sheep have their feet trimmed as part of their regular care, but it's not ideal to do this in late pregnancy. Sitting them up onto their bottoms (same hold as shearing) can crush their lung capacity and stop them breathing. So by the time they lamb, they are very heavy and may have sore feet. Once they've had a few days to get over the birth they will be foot trimmed as part of their post-natal care. 

Some of the sheep may also suffer nerve pain in their legs from the pressure of the lambs inside them. This can make them lame, but usually resolves itself immediately after lambing. All sheep that are eating and drinking well are best remaining with the flock – we only separate them for medical necessities. 

Is anybody there looking after the sheep? 

Lambcam is brought to you by a small but dedicated team. Once things get going there are experienced staff on hand during the day and through the night. 

Are the sheep in pain?  

Yes - they're giving birth, and labour can be a long and painful process!  

I've been watching a sheep struggling to give birth - why doesn't someone go in and help her? 

Sheep are nervous animals - they don't find the presence of humans relaxing.  Their natural instinct is to run away (as you'll see every time the team go in). Sprinting round the shed stresses them out and slows down the lambing. The shepherds observe quietly from a distance and intervene as little as possible. A calm, quiet shed means shorter labours for everyone. 

But she's been struggling for ages and no-one's been to see her! 

As well as the area you can see on camera, we have separate nursery sheds for the ewes and their lambs. The team will always assess the needs of the whole flock and prioritise the most vulnerable. A very sick newborn lamb that needs tube feeding may be taking precedence over a ewe in labour. Remember that there may be a staff member just out of shot watching on. 

Why are you letting it go on so long? 

The ewe needs to labour until her cervix is dilated enough for the lambs to pass through. This can take anything from 30 minutes to several hours. The ones that are making the most fuss are often our yearlings giving birth for the first time. Ironically these are the girls that need to do the most work to open their cervixes. Caesarean births for sheep would only ever be an absolute last resort and have very poor outcomes for the ewe. A long labour is always a much better option - sorry ladies! 

There's a sheep in the shed screaming in pain… 

Sheep are mostly completely silent when giving birth (but you should hear the racket at feeding time!) In the wild, being quiet while in labour reduces the chances of being attacked by a predator at such a vulnerable moment. When you see a ewe with her eyes wide, head thrown back and top lip curled, it's evidence of the strength of her contractions. That's a good thing - it means she's getting down to business and there'll be a birth happening soon. 

I've just seen the shepherd give the sheep an injection - what was that? 

A shot of calcium can help get things moving if a ewe has been in active labour for a long time but is not making much progress with dilating her cervix. 

Why do they swing the lambs by their legs sometimes? 

It's vital that lambs start to breathe on their own as soon as they are born. They sometimes have noses and throats full of fluid. You may see the shepherds sticking a bit of straw up the lamb's nostril to get it to cough or sneeze. If this doesn't work they will sometimes swing the lamb by its back legs. It looks dramatic - but is the most effective way to clear the airway. Centrifugal force helps the lamb to cough out any obstructions. 

What are they doing when they put their hands inside the sheep? 

Check out this blog post from 2016 for a full guide to lamb presentation aka 'What's going on there?' 

Lleisiau o’r Archifau

Gareth Beech, 27 March 2019

Eitem arall yn y gyfres Lleisiau o’r Archifau o Archif Sain, Sain Ffagan Amgueddfa Werin Cymru. Mae’r gyfres hon yn cyd-redeg â gweithgareddau a digwyddiadau amaethyddol yr Amgueddfa. Ffermwyr oedd y siaradwyr, a oedd, fel arfer, wedi byw yn yr un ardal trwy gydol eu hoes. Mae’r disgrifiadau, y profiadau, yr atgofion, y lleisiau a’r acenion yn wreiddiol ac unigryw, o wahanol ardaloedd, ac o wahanol gyfnodau.

I gyd-fynd gyda’r wyna yn Llwyn-yr-eos, fferm yr Amgueddfa, dyma ddarn o recordiad o Dan Theophilus, Allt yr erw, Rhandir-mwyn, a recordiwyd ym mis Gorffennaf 1975, pan yn 65 oed. Mae’n sôn am wahanol agweddau ar wyna: gofalu am y defaid; delio gyda thrafferthion ac afiechydon; mabwysiadu oen; marcio clustiau; a throi’r defaid a’r wyn i’r mynydd.