THE hooves came first, then the nose and then the new born lamb tumbled out on to the straw.
“Is he breathing?” said John Worthingon, 60, of Worthington Bros Farm, near Cilcain.
His son, Gareth, 31, shook his head.
The ewe was a first-time mother with twins, and this lamb was big and had to be helped down the birth canal with some judicious pulling.
Any number of things can go wrong while lambing, disease, accident, predation, a breech-birth.
But sometimes the lambs just fail to take that first breath.
Gareth rubbed the lamb’s belly and tickled its nose with straw to try to provoke a sneeze. When that didn’t work, he knelt down and blew into its mouth.
“Still no,” he said, curtly.
The barn was tense and quiet. The lamb was disturbingly floppy and flat.
Gareth filled the lamb’s lungs once more and continued to massage its belly.
Then came a cough, a splutter, and a kick, and the lamb sucked in air.
Gareth stood back and wiped his hands on his trousers – all in a day’s work for a sheep farmer, to midwife and then perform a CPR-of-sorts on a lamb.
“It’s a fantastic feeling,” said John, who had been watching from over the enclosure railings. “Look at him now. He’ll be on his feet soon, no problems.”
His mother set to licking the afterbirth from his wool. The lamb, who will spend a day or so in a private pen bonding with his mother, will soon be released into a field to mature. After a few months, he will go on to Mold livestock market. But this was still a little moment of triumph.
This is the busiest time of year for sheep farmers.
“We’re lambing inside at the moment,” said John. “It’s a full-time job. Gareth does the morning shift, I do the night shift. You can be up all hours.
“There’s this idea that sheep are easy animals to farm, but that isn’t true. You can ask any sheep farmer. All sorts of things can happen. Sheep can be smarter than you’d expect, but they can also be quite daft too. If this ewe had been outside – they find a hedge or something to lie down under – we’d probably have lost the lamb because we wouldn’t have found him in time.
“When they are penned up like this, you have to separate them from the other ewes, because if they are lambing too, they might nick the new lamb and assume it’s their own – then all kinds of confusion happens.”
The adoption instinct can come in handy. If a ewe loses a lamb, or triplets are born to a young ewe who can’t deal with three little ones, John can introduce an unrelated lamb to a new mother. In the case of lost lambs, he uses the old technique of skinning the dead lamb and wrapping the orphan in the skin.
At least one lamb in the barn benefited from this during this lambing season. The alternative is to ‘yoke’ a ewe, holding her in place using a brace so the motherless lamb can feed and hoping that she will get used to her new charge.
John said: “This is a mixed farm, as we also keep cattle. We grow swedes for the sheep to eat and also some corn as a crop. We breed charollais sheep. We have 400 breeding ewes on about 220 acres. I’m the third generation, although my grandfather only farmed a little.
“My son Gareth has come home to farm, so it’ll carry on here. Farming is a way of life. Our politicians think that’s wrong. They think we should regard it as a business, but you can’t just regard it as that. I can’t think of any other business where you buy something, tend for it and don’t have any idea of what the value will be when you come to sell it in a year. Farmers have to be eternal optimists.”
The reasons for this are obvious.
John, who is signing his farm up to Glastir, the Welsh Government’s new agri-environment scheme, has seen what the weather and disease can do.
Reflecting on heavy snow this time last year, John said although the drifts weren’t too deep, some some lambs were lost that were put outside before the snowfall.
John’s farm remained untouched by the foot and mouth outbreak in 2007, which devastated farms around the country, and also by the BSE scandal of the 1990s.
He said: “I really felt for those farmers who had to destroy their stock. It’s had a knock-on effect on everyone, though.
“All of our animals now have passports – all 400 sheep and 150 cattle. The sheep all have two ear tags, one of them electric. They can be scanned at market or if they escape.
“It means if anything does go wrong somewhere down the chain it can be traced back to the source.”
Traceability is a hot topic after last year’s horsemeat scandal and is vital when it comes to finding if the lamb you are buying is from Wales or elsewhere.
The biggest competitor is New Zealand.
John said: “I’m obviously not keen supermarkets are buying in New Zealand lamb before Welsh lamb. Sometimes they use the excuse that the Welsh lamb has run out, but we’re changing the way we work. For instance, we lamb 80 ewes in January to meet demand, and some farmers are lambing later.
“I’d encourage people to buy local. Paul Williams Butchers in Mold does a good job of sourcing from Cilcain and nearby. But you have to respect how the New Zealanders work.”
While John sticks to tried and tested methods, farming on the hills of Flintshire has changed dramatically in the space of three generations.
“People think of sheep farming as stick and dog farming, but it isn’t, he said. “It’s more quad-bike and scanner farming now. But it’s worth it on days like this, when the weather is good, and May, which is a quiet time for us, is on the horizon.”