Amgueddfa Blog: Lambcam

As Lambcam comes to a close for another year, we look back at the history of lambing in Wales.

 

Voices from the Archives is a series of articles with sound clips based on recordings in the Oral History Archive of St Fagans National Museum of History. They accompany agricultural activities and events at the Museum. The speakers were farmers who had usually lived all their lives in the same locality as where they had been born and grown up. Their descriptions, experiences, recollections, voices, accents were authentic and distinctive, from different parts of Wales, and from different times.

 

March is lambing time at the Museum’s working farm, Llwyn-yr-eos. Lambing time on a farm at the foot of the Black Mountains, south east Wales was described by William Powell when interviewed in 1978. He farmed Gellywellteg, near the village of Forest Coal Pit, a few miles north east of Abergavenny. To the north of the farm were the Black Mountains, and Sugar Loaf mountain to the south.

 

He kept 140 ewes, home-bred Hill Radnor sheep, the predominant breed in the area during his farming life. They had brown-grey faces, no wool on their heads, convex noses, sturdy legs, and were compact and hardy. Two or three Hill Radnor rams were also kept, brought in, and changed every two years.

 

In the first selection of clips from the interview, William Powell describes when lambing took place and how:

The ewes about to give birth had to be checked regularly in case they had any difficulties. Ideally lambs would be born by their two front legs and head coming out first. There could be complications if one or both front legs were pointing backwards, or if the two legs were coming out but not the head. William Powell gained a reputation locally for his expertise:

Sometimes a weak lamb could be adopted by a ewe whose own lamb had died using an age-old method:

 

Young lambs could be vulnerable to illnesses and diseases, such as running noses, known locally as ‘snuff’:

 

 

And finally, how many lambs could be produced from a flock of 140 ewes:

 

 

Yn ystod y 1970au cynnar aeth staff yr amgueddfa ati i recordio hen ffermwyr yn disgrifio ffermio yng Nghymru ar ddechrau’r ugeinfed ganrif cyn datblygiadau peiriannau ffermio o’r 1950au ymlaen. Mae’r recordiau yn cael ei chadw yn Archif Sain yr amgueddfa.

Yn 1975 holodd John Williams Davies y ffermwr Dan Theophilus am y profiad o ffermio defaid ar ddechrau’r ugeinfed ganrif.

Roedd Dan Theophilus yn byw ar fferm Allt Yr Erw, Rhandirmwyn, pentref yng ngogledd-ddwyrain Sir Gaerfyrddin.

Mae Dan Theophilus yn sôn am ofalu am y defaid adeg ŵyna, yr achosion mae’n meddwl sydd yn arwain at ddefaid yn cael trafferth i ddod ac ŵyn, a’r tywydd gwaethaf ar gyfer y tymor ŵyna.

Dan Theophilus, Allt Yr Erw, Rhandirmwyn

Mae’n dweud sut oedd perswadio defaid i fabwysiadu oen, y perthynas rhwng y ddafad a’r oen a pha mor ffyddlon byddai’r defaid i’r ŵyn ar ôl ŵyna wrth iddo droi’r defaid i’r mynydd.

We often get asked what happens to the lambs from Llwyn-Yr-Eos farm once the lambing season is over.

The lambs are put out to graze in the fields in and around the museum and are regularly on to fresh grass.

We will pick out the best lambs and keep them for breeding at the farm. This year we are looking to keep around 50 of the lambs born here at Llwyn-Yr-Eos farm.

Most of the female lambs go on for breeding stock, and there’s the select few rams that we sell at the pedigree sales as breeding rams.

The other lambs get sold for meat.

 

Where are the lambs sold?

We tend to support the pedigree society sales at Raglan, Llanybydder and Talybont on Usk.

There are also Hill Radnor, Llanwennog and Black Welsh Mountain rare breed sales at Raglan market.

We do sell direct to some butchers and are hoping to tie in with the Museum restaurant at St Fagans so that in the future they will be using the lamb reared here at Llwyn-Yr Eos farm.

The lamb on your plate is anything from 4-12 months old.

 

Voices from the archive - Lambing in Radnorshire

In the early 1970s Museum staff set out to record older and retired farmers describing farming in Wales in the first half of the twentieth century, before the large-scale mechanisation and expansion from the 1950s onwards.

In 1977 James Albert Price was interviewed by John Williams Davies about the lambing process at Tipton farm, Willey, Radnorshire.

The lambs were reared on the farm would be kept for 12 months and sold as yearlings the following March. The best lambs would be picked for breeding and the others sold.

James Albert Price, Tipton farm, 1977

James Price mentions the ewe auctions in Knighton each September selling 10 – 12,000 ewes a day.

The ram lambs would be sold as yearlings in auction at Craven Arms, Leominster and Hereford with three or four ram sales at Craven Arms.

 

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 last three years.  Here's the stuff you need to know when things start to hot up in the lambing shed:

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?'

The Voices from the Archives series is based on recordings in the Oral History Archive at St Fagans National History Museum. Connected to the agricultural activities, demonstrations and displays at the Museum - they provide an insight into the lives and histories of farming people, the agricultural practices in the past, how they developed into contemporary agriculture.

Lambing in Pembrokeshire, 1984

March is lambing time at Llwyn-yr-eos Farm, the Museum’s working farm. Lambing in the past and present was described by Richard James, Portfield Gate, Pembrokeshire, south west Wales, in a recording made in 1984. Aged 79, he recalled lambing in an interview about his life in farming, but also described how it was being done on a farm in the area in the year of the interview. The following short clips are from the recording.

Pembrokeshire born and bred, Richard James had farmed at Lambston Sutton in the south west of the county. It stood between the large county town of Haverfordwest a few miles to the east, and the coastline of St Bride’s Bay to the west. The lowland coastal areas, warmer climate and lower rainfall made agriculture more diverse than in many other parts of Wales, with the keeping cattle and sheep and the growing of early potatoes and cereal crops. The coastal areas could be exposed to the winds and rain from the Atlantic Ocean though, and weather conditions could strongly influence lambing, to which Richard James refers in the first clip:

 

Richard James, Portfield Gate, Pembrokeshire

 

When lambing was to take place was decided by when the ewes were put to the rams. Up until then the rams on the farm had to be kept separate from the sheep. It was always a concern that rams might break through a poor fence or hedge and cause lambing to start at the wrong time. Also, a ram of poorer quality or a different breed from another flock could also result in poorer quality lambs and reduced income. After mating, a ewe is pregnant for between 142 and 152 days, approximately five months or slightly shorter.

In this clip, Richard James describes at what time of year lambing took place on a local farm, and how it was being done by a farmer using a former aircraft hangar.

Richard James, Portfield Gate, Pembrokeshire

The final clip is about working the day and night shifts:

Richard James, Portfield Gate, Pembrokeshire