I am writing this slap bang in the middle of lambing, and perhaps my current opinion should not be heeded.
Nevertheless, it is important to state here and now that I detest triplet and quad lambs, and would much prefer a pile of doubles, with a healthy spattering of singles as well.
Am I a bad farmer, or are there other shepherds out there whose heart sinks when a pile of multiple births appear over two or three days? Or perhaps it’s just an age thing: youthful enthusiasm and boundless passion for the job gradually gets overpowered by a lack of horsepower and energy.
If you do find yourself with extra lambs, it is vital that you choose someone who is equally despondent, cynical and exhausted (it is called lambing sickness) before engaging them in conversation or seeking their advice. Because there are some people who are convinced that the way they deal with surplus lambs is 100% bulletproof, works brilliantly and makes a fortune.
I haven’t yet stumbled on anything that ticks the necessary boxes, and I go to enormous lengths to avoid depressing discussions with these sorts of positive individuals.
Option one is to let the ewe rear all three lambs. Only the most optimistic farmer sees this as the easy route. In my experience, roughly one ewe in four is capable of producing enough milk to end up with three decent lambs at weaning age.
Often there will be wrecked udders, poor lambs, and casualties too. And they will need enough meal to feed a dairy cow into the bargain.
Option two is currently fashionable and is the artificial rearing of pet lambs. You will notice that those farmers who have invested a fortune in this system are the most vehement of all that it is a great way to deal with the extras.
I can’t help but wonder if they’ll still be doing it in 10 years’ time, because we had 36 pets last year reared on semi-automatic feeders, and I am trying really hard not to repeat things again.
Currently, we have four abandoned lambs on this system. While the figures may stack up when lamb prices are strong, any profit is easily dissolved by factoring in a labour charge.
The third option can be a real cracker, but there are hidden pitfalls. Just because your neighbour loaded up the back of the jeep with a dozen orphan lambs, took them to an evening sale and got 30 quid apiece, does not mean this will happen to you.
But the problem with staying local is that some years you could sell 50 of them, the next year there is zero demand
By the time you are far enough through the lambing to free up the time to attend a sale, the world and his wife will also have too many lambs, and you might get 30 quid too – for four of them.
I explored this option a few years ago, hit an oversupplied market, and barely got enough money to pay for my diesel. I prefer to ask £15 for them in the yard.
But the problem with staying local is that some years you could sell 50 of them, the next year there is zero demand.
Fostering is a real option too, but do not believe those fantasists who never get it wrong (ie those who say: “I must have got 20 lambs slipped on to wet ewes; it works every time”).
We have managed to transfer about nine triplets onto freshly lambed singles, with about 80% success. However, despite “lambing” the second one out of a single-bearing ewe, and presenting her with another only born seconds before, the occasional sheep is far too smart to be outfoxed by some eejit with his arm jammed up her rear end.
Of course, there is always a “last chance saloon” option, and this is one that I flatly rejected for years.
It has been employed to great effect by one of my farming colleagues, and my opinion has shifted from amusement, to curiosity, and finally to out and out admiration.
I used to think he was daft: now that I’m a bit older, I think he may be one of the shrewdest operators in the country
He simply gives them away. If you ask him why, he shrugs his shoulders and says he can’t be bothered with the time and effort involved with pet lambs, and by handing them out he has a guaranteed market to soak up those extras.
I used to think he was daft: now that I’m a bit older, I think he may be one of the shrewdest operators in the country.