Amgueddfa Blog: Lambcam

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.  

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?' 

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.

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.