…the last few days have been typically spring-like, with the strong sunshine making my skin feel burnt, to snowfall the following morning. Our Spring Equinox is fast approaching and the first lambs can been seen dancing and prancing in the fields by day and hopefully snuggled with their mothers during the icy nights.
On a trip to see Granny Cockspur last week, we stumbled upon a wonderful farm in deepest darkest Herefordshire, having read a charming advertisement for ‘Lambing Afternoons in Pudleston’. Round and round and up and down we drove, snaking along narrow country lanes following the signs that simply read ‘Lamb’.
Finally we found the farm and were greeted by a lovely rose-cheeked man with his faithful collie dog who was curled up in a box guarding the lambs. On entering the sheds we were rewarded with the most amazing sight, stall after stall of beautiful sheep with their darling lambs, some still so dangerously small and underweight that they may not have lasted through the afternoon. Several times whilst we were there the smallest creatures were gently lifted from their mother’s sides and put into wooden boxes with blow-heaters aimed at them, a far cry from the idyllic image of lambs in the gentle warming oven of an AGA. Nevertheless it proved to be a very effective way to warm up their chilled little bones.
Luckily, this small farm has not been affected so far by Schmallenberg disease, an infection caught by mothers that is spreading all over the country, leading to stillborn or deformed lambs and calves being born. However, despite this, Whyle House Farm has still lost more lambs than in previous years, and the farmer and his son were being kept busy tube-feeding the weakest babes and bottle feeding the slightly stronger ones. This can be vital if a mother rejects her lamb or simply cannot feed because of common conditions such as mastitis. Some ewes who give birth to stillborn lambs are very often given another lamb to adopt as their own, and by rubbing the new lamb in the dead lamb’s after-birth the mother will quite often successfully rear another’s offspring. The same can happen if a mother has triplets and another a singlet, meaning both mothers have two lambs to rear, thereby ensuring all the lambs have as much milk as possible. This year at the farm they have had one set of quadruplets born – quite a rarity – and even more surprisingly, all four have survived and indeed were out in the fields thriving.
There were lots of pregnant ewes too pacing in their stalls, and we learnt that although some lambs can be born very quickly and without warning, some mothers stare into the distance or stargaze when they are in labour, and some paw the ground in anticipation of an imminent birth. Sadly we didn’t see any lambs actually being born, but we are hoping for a return visit next week so fingers crossed. We were however fortunate enough to hold some of the lambs, there little iodine stained bellies indicating they had been newly delivered and their umbilical cords cut and swabbed to help ward off infection.
I had the wonderful opportunity of bottle-feeding one of the smallest lambs, who had up until that point been tube-fed as he rejected his bottle. The farmers do not like to tube feed the lambs for too long as it can damage their oesophagus and cause further problems. Either it was an extraordinary moment of luck or I really am destined to be a shepherdess but the little lamb wolfed his milk down much to my – and the farmer’s – delight. After all, these little babes are a commodity for the farmers and it is vital that as many lambs as possible survive and thrive.
Whilst I am a vegetarian, with a ridiculously soft spot for animals, especially baby ones, I am also realistic as to the nature of farming and why these lambs are being bred in the first place. I also know that for about six months these lambs will have a wonderful life, ensured by the small scale of the farm and the obvious dedication and love that the farmers’ feel towards their livestock. Whilst no charge was asked for spending an afternoon at the farm, they did encourage people to buy their lamb meat directly from them, and we scuttled into the butchery to see what was available. I bought two lamb shanks for my boys to try. I made them into a hearty stew using tips from the farmer who gave me his recipe for a deliciously melting and tender supper, and some helpful suggestions and measurements from Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries.
2 lamb shanks
A large glug of olive oil
2 onions, peeled and quartered ( I used red onions)
3 bay leaves
3 large cloves of garlic
2 tbsp of hot wholegrain mustard
300ml of red wine
200ml of stock
salt and pepper
So – I simply sealed the lamb shanks in the hot oil in the base of a heavy cast-iron pot. Once golden brown I added the onions and the bay leaves, the hot stock and red wine and allowed it all to bubble for a while.
I then added the peeled and squashed garlics into the liquor, added the heavy lid, and put the pot into a moderate oven for 2 hours, stirring halfway through (at which point I also stirred in the mustard). I served the stew – with the lamb melting from the bone – with a swede and potato root mash from a recipe I had seen in Hugh FW’s book Three Good Things, and a cauliflower cheese made using locally smoked Cheddar.
…Now that our naughty pup Jemima has started to behave I am on the look out for a new challenge – in the form of two pet lambs – but these will definitely not be destined for our table.