From the Farming Frontlines: Neil Heseltine’s Lambing Diary

By Neil Heseltine

Swaledale ewe (or ‘yow’ as we call them!) and her mule twin lambs

Neil is the fourth generation of his family to farm Hill Top Farm, a 1200 acre upland farm with 140 Belted Galloway cattle and 250 sheep near Malham in North Yorkshire. The lockdown has meant no more rugby and national park meetings or nights in the pub but otherwise life at Hill Top has carried on much the same as normal for this time of year; a daily routine of checking the fields for newborns, helping ewes in trouble, and encouraging new lambs to suckle. Here Neil gives us a glimpse of life on the farm for the last week of April. 

The cattle on Pikedaw, the highest part of our farm

Thursday, 23 April

By half ten I’m on my second check round of the fields where we lamb the sheep. We have a mix of Black Wensleydales and there’s some Bluefaced Leicester. One or two of them have already lambed but there’s still many more to go. 

These black sheep are a bit of a new venture for us which we got into because we wanted some sheep that had a value in their wool as well as in the lamb we sell off them.  Black Wensleydales are a local breed – Wensleydale is only about two dales away from here – which we brought in when we decided to change our farming system about seven years ago after visiting The Oxford Real Farming Conference. 

Up until then we were lambing in the middle of March and had some fairly tortuous lambing times. We had quite a lot more sheep too – around 400 to 500  – and in March you get some horrendous weather conditions up this way.  The final nail in the coffin was when we had a blizzard in the middle of March one year just on the verge of lambing. We had lambs being born in snow drifts and sub zero temperatures outside so there was no grass.  We lost a lot that year and it cost us a lot too.  

Now we wait until there’s a bit of grass around and move the sheep on every other day. So we have a bit of a mob grazing experiment going on just to see how that works and whether we can improve things from both an animal health and biodiversity perspective as well as from an economic perspective. 

The lambs we have this year are Bluefaced Leicester, which are renowned for having a beautiful fleece, crossed with Black Wensleydale which produces quite a lot of wool so you actually get a high yield fleece which has a reasonable value. We were selling the first clip for about £15 a kilo and each sheep yields about three kilos in weight. It means we can have a decent income from the actual fleece itself which really makes a difference to the viability of a sheep enterprise.

We used to have four to five hundred Swaledales and would lamb them quite close to home, mollycoddle them, feed them; but in the last few years we’ve gone back to lambing them out on the hill again like my Dad used to do in the 60s and 70s.  Also, we don’t push for numbers of lambs.  Quite a few of them just have a single lamb and we try to allow them to exhibit their natural behaviour as much as possible. What we’re looking for with lambs is to ensure the lamb is on its feet and they’ve got a belly full of milk and then you can relax and know they’re ok.  We say they’re up and sucked and done! 

These fields my Dad used to walk around four or five times a day during lambing time. Unfortunately I now use a quad bike and am out of breath within ten yards!  I feel a bit  sad that I’m the first generation to have shepherded these hills without walking or being on horseback but It’s still good to get out on the hill and lamb sheep like this.  We’ve found we have a lot less problems now; like twin-lamb disease, calcium and magnesium deficiencies, prolapses, lambing problems, and so it’s a lot kinder on the sheep.  

Later in the day I go and check on the cattle, which are on our highest piece of land. It’s a hill called Pikedaw, which runs up straight from the farmhouse. The top of the pike is 1800 feet above sea level and the farmhouse is 800 feet so you rise a thousand feet in a mile. This is where the cattle live all year round and there’s a bit of a watering hole here. When it’s very hot the cattle wallow here like hippos. It’s good to see they’ve all come through the winter really well and we haven’t had to feed them at all. Some winters we might have to bring them up a bit of silo but that’s only in really snowy conditions. Other than that, they live and thrive up here without any additional feed. Which is obviously a great help in terms of the amount of work we have to do but also in terms of the cost and impact on the environment.

A Swaledale ewe and her newborn lamb

Friday, 24 April 

Friday is another beautiful warm day, in fact it’s my Dad’s 88th birthday!  I go out early to check on the Bluefaced Leicesters; we only have seven of these now.  A pair of twins were born overnight and are looking healthy and sharp. We used to lamb a lot of these but they’re the most unsustainable sheep you ever did see because they’re not hardy, prone to diseases and need a lot of feed – largely problems caused by our over-management through generations – so we only keep a few of them now for posterity. 

I also visit a mule sheep which has just produced two lambs. This breed is the result of a cross between the Bluefaced Leicester tup (ram) and a Swaledale yow (ewe) and has the best features of each of the parent breeds;  they’re hardy, motherly and also quite prolific, producing two lambs quite readily. This is what the North of England mule is famous for and hence it’s become such a dominant breed throughout the whole of the UK. The mule has plenty of milk and the lambs have both sucked up and done, but my visit with the dog puts her on high alert so we move off quickly and leave her alone. 

Sunday, 26 April

Sheep at Hill Top Farm

As a family, we went into lockdown slightly earlier because my partner, Leigh, has asthma and we’ve been shielding her. We have holiday accommodation here on the farm so when Leigh received the text from the government suggesting that she needed to be particularly careful I moved into the holiday cottage to do my farming and live my life from there. I still see Leigh and our six year daughter, Violet, regularly in the garden but actually meal times, sleeping arrangements and these kind of things, I am sort of leading a separate life for now..  

Today, I find a yow who’s having trouble giving birth to what seems like a massive lamb. I can see the feet and nose but it’s a bit tight. I get the lamb out but I need to massage the heart to get it going. It’s hot and Mum’s a bit tired so I pull the second lamb out from her and hope that’s it.  When I leave, both lambs are breathing and the sheep is ok although I sit her up to make her a bit more comfortable.  Sometimes when they’ve had a bit of difficulty lambing, especially when it’s their first lambs, they can be a little funny with them and wonder what they are or they’re doing to her! 

Newborn lamb struggling to feed

Monday 27 April

First thing Monday morning I go out to do my first check around the field. I come across a newborn lamb from a young Bluefaced Leicester yow or ewe. The way it’s bleating noisily makes me wonder if it might not have sucked. I don’t know what time it was born, but the first job is to catch the mum and get the lamb suckling and make sure he gets the nutrition he needs.  

I turn the sheep over and try and get the lamb to suck. The sheep has tonnes of milk for it but it’s one of those incredibly frustrating lambs that just lies there and refuses to suckle. The most important job in lambing time is to ensure the lamb gets colustrum into it in the first six hours. And because I don’t know exactly when the lamb was born I don’t know how old it is so rather than giving it another hour to try and suckle itself, l decide to milk the sheep and put a tube into the lamb to ensure the colustrum gets into its stomach. 

At lambing time, I always carry a stick (to catch the sheep), a jug (to collect the milk) and a stomach tube to put down the lambs throat.  I reckon this set of equipment has saved more lambs lives on this farm than any other. It’s absolutely critical to get that colustrum in early – if you don’t the lamb is far more susceptible to any diseases going, particularly the E.coli diseases like rattle-belly and watery mouth.

The other piece of equipment that is critical to what we do is Breeze the dog. In this case, Breeze makes the sheep more motherly, more protective of her lamb and therefore a little more easier to catch. With her help, I manage to get 200 millilitres into the lamb who seems slightly more content and decide to come back later.  

In another field with the Black Leicesters and Black Wensleydales I find a newborn pair of twins.  Although they’re not particularly big, the ewe is quite a bit older and both lambs have sucked which is good.  We move the other sheep in the field on so they’re not distracting the lambs which allows this Mum to get a good bond with them. This is a much better situation and how lambing should happen.  


Twin lambs

Tuesday 28 April

This first trip around this morning and the day hasn’t started very well I’m afraid. The lamb I was tubing yesterday hasn’t made it through the night and is lying dead beside her Mum. As the day went on yesterday, despite feeding her a few times, it became apparent that there was more wrong with her than I first thought. Now it’s a matter of what to do next. The sheep still wants a lamb to mother so it’s a matter of finding her another lamb. As luck would have it, we had Bluefaced Leicester twin lambs born the other day and their Mum is being a little funny about mothering them both so I will probably end up taking one lamb off the Bluefaced Leicester and putting it onto this sheep here. This means the sheep here will have a lamb and it will mean that the lamb, which isn’t being mothered, will get a chance to get plenty of milk. Hopefully, instead of two unhappy situations, we’ll end up with two happy situations. 

Butterlambs, our biggest block of land and where we grow our traditional hay meadow.

In slightly brighter news the other sheep who lambed yesterday with the twins is still doing well, they’re both sucking away in the field. The field they’re in, Butterlambs, is our biggest block of land and our traditional hay meadow. In the next week, we’ll be moving all the sheep out to allow it to grow up for a fodder crop. But also in that intervening time, which is from early May until we cut it in late July, it will also allow habitats to be created and we’ll get a lot of different flower species in there, mainly dominated by yellow rattle, which is a really important species in hay meadows but also red clover, eyebright and various others.  This period of time allows the birds to lay their eggs and chicks to hatch and fledge undisturbed, before we go through it with our mower. This is a really important part of what we do. 

Moat the dog

Wednesday 29 April

Out on the rounds again this morning and our first call is in Jammy Croft which is where the Bluefaced Leicesters are and we have another pair of twins which all look happy and sat with their Mum.  However, although the lambs appear to have suckled and both seem reasonably full, when we checked her udder- or her bag as we know it – I realised she was only milking on one side. When the lambs are this size they can keep going on only one teat between the two of them but when they get a little bit older sharing one teat doesn’t really work.  So what we’ll have to do is wait for a sheep that requires a lamb, then we’ll take this smaller lamb away and mother it onto a different sheep. Otherwise what will happen is as these lambs get bigger, one of them will get all the milk and the other will get pushed out.  

In the Burrins, which is a field that joins the next door farm, there’s a mule sheep that lambed about a week ago. She had twins but this morning she’s only got one with her. I find the missing lamb in our neighbour’s field but now it’s stuck over there, unable to get back, and we’ve got the challenge of trying to catch it. Lambs of this age are notoriously difficult to catch because they run like the wind and they don’t want to be caught even though they want to be back with their Mums!

Got it! With Moat’s help

I take Moat (the dog) to help me and between us we get all the sheep into one corner as a group or a packet, as we call it. Then at the appropriate moment, I dash in with my crook and get the lamb by the neck, pick it up and holding it in one arm, drive the lamb back to its mother on the quad bike, with Moat on the back. I am relieved it all went well the first time as it can get tricky when you’re trying to manage a packet of sheep, a dog and a lamb that doesn’t want to get caught; so you have to use a bit of skill and guile! 

Hill Top Farm

Thursday 30 April

So this is my last morning of the diary and we’ve walked up through Jammy Croft as usual and there’s a black lamb here and no sign of a mother. It doesn’t look as though it’s even been licked by the mother once it was born. I have a good look around and discover Mum with another lamb elsewhere in the field. So it’s basically a pair of twins, but she must have had a bit of difficulty lambing the first one and then gone elsewhere in the field to lamb the second one.  

I put the first lamb with her but at this stage it’s likely that she’ll end up knocking it away, and favouring the second lamb. To be right honest with you, it’s going to be a real pain in the arse if she does that. However because we’re lambing less sheep I am able to put in a bit of time to her and try and get the lamb suckling. In the old lambing system, where we had four or five hundred sheep lambing, you could have a couple of these situations happening a day and you didn’t have the time to put in to make them right. At least now I can devote a bit more time to each sheep and to each problem. 

Later in the day there’s a bit of good news. I spent a lot of time this morning trying to get the rejected lamb to suckle and finally managed to get enough milk in him to tide him over.  Then when I came back later the Mum was not rejecting him anymore and he was suckling happily.  This could have been a very tricky situation but all parties have been sensible in their behaviour and are now happy and content. 

In general lambing’s gone well this year. The weather’s been amazing, and that’s part of why we now lamb at this time of year when it’s warmer.  We now have around 140 lambs on the ground and are about three quarters of the way through. In terms of COVID, in a slightly odd kind of way it’s almost made things a little bit easier because throughout lambing time you’re trying to concentrate on what’s happening on the farm, keep the lambs going and sort out any problems and obviously in normal times the world is going on around you.  Especially at Easter, there are hundreds of visitors around, the pubs are open and people you know come back to Malham for their holidays, and none of those distractions have been there this time. So that’s allowed us to keep our mind absolutely on the job without the distractions of the world tempting you into having a pint in the pub or go to a party. It’s kind of made it easier because we’re locked down on the farm, we know we’re here and that’s where we’re at. I know that other businesses and industries are going through far, far worse than we are both individually and as an industry and I think agriculture has, in relative terms, been very fortunate. 

To find out how the rest of lambing goes on Hill Top Farm follow Neil and Leigh on @hilltopfarmgirl