In the past, October has been lambing month on my farm. Logically, it makes perfect sense: mid-spring (April equivalent for you in the northern hemisphere) with plenty of new growth for the mamas to make milk. However, year after year, September has seen reasonably settled weather and October has been truly awful.
This year was no exception—in fact, possibly the worst October weather I’ve seen in my 16 years of farming. The explanation, rather embarrassingly for an ex-oceanographer, is simply equinoctial gales—October is the time when the storms of the Southern Ocean tune up with changes in sea surface temperatures, and the consequent combination of wind, rain and cold air temperatures over Tasmania are all too often fatal to newborn lambs.
For the last three years, I haven’t lambed at all, due to the paucity of forage, and thank goodness I didn’t this year. Since the last two days of September, we’ve had 89 mm (3.5 in) of rain, 21 days with either rain, hail or frost (or all three!), most with strong to gale-force winds. As I’m writing this, the wind is gusting 50 kph (30 mph), it’s raining, and tomorrow’s forecast is for snow down to my elevation.
So, I am never, ever going to lamb in October again.
To celebrate this commitment, I did something I’ve been contemplating for months: I put the rams out with a selection of ewes, in time for an autumn lambing. While not the usual thing in Tasmania, autumn lambing is not unheard of. March, in my experience, is the nicest weather month of all in Tas. To be fair, my feeling about this is biased by my very first visit here in 1995, when for two straight weeks in March the weather was absolutely delightful (well, except for one brief hailstorm).
The reluctance to lamb in autumn comes, I’m pretty sure, from fear of not having good enough green feed for the ewes to make milk after a dry summer. I have a couple of tricks up my sleeve to offset that particular worry: my 50 acres of lucerne (alfalfa) are green year round, and a low stocking rate ensures I can reserve the best feed for lambing time. This year’s rains will give me the best opportunity in a long time to try the experiment, so I’m now committed: the rams were “joined” with the ewes the 20th of October, and will be out with them for 4 weeks. The ewes will start lambing at the ides of March—an auspicious time, I hope!
I’ve only joined 98 ewes, all of them maidens, ranging in age from 3 to 5 years. (I won't ask any of my older ewes to have lambs--it will be enough for them to grow beautiful wool.) The rams are "maidens", too: all three of them are 4-year-olds. I will be cautious in rebuilding the flock numbers after the big sell-off last January. Twice in the last 10 years I’ve had to reduce flock numbers to 500 or less in order to cope with insufficient forage, despite only running 1000 or so (1 to the acre) in the years running up to this one. So, I’m not convinced 1000 is sustainable in the long term, especially given my high bar for what constitutes good nutrition and my desire to keep my aging sheep for their natural lifetimes. My best guess at this point is 750 to 800 is the number I should be aiming for to allow me to manage the vicissitudes of weather gracefully and sustainably.
Ah, but what about the separation anxiety? Well, while the rams are out with the selected ewes the flock is split in two, for the first time since I began shepherding. While I don’t know for sure, I strongly suspect the new lead ewe is with the “mothers-to-be” flock, while the “main” flock now has a higher percentage of boys, all of whom have been given a small dose of testosterone to help them resist a condition resulting from excess protein (clover and lucerne) in their diet: bacterial infection of the sheath. Testosterone is quite effective, but also tends to make the boys a bit stroppy, as you might expect. Leadership in the main flock at the moment seems to be a bit hit-and-miss. Ahem. Maybe more hitting than missing.
I honestly don’t know if the sheep are feeling separation anxiety—it’s entirely possible I’m the only one who’s anxious. But the subtle changes in leadership and flock dynamics are certainly there. And I’m also now trying to manage shepherding for both groups, which is certainly keeping me hopping!
In other news:
- A new WGW website is in the works, and the next Yarn will introduce it. The site should be live by late November.
- The swans are growing like weeds, and a large family of mountain ducks (14 babies) are keeping them company on Swan Lake.
- The new She-oak Heather yarn (a literally dyed-in-the-wool colour blend) is due here in late November.