IF I could come back as an animal, I would choose to be a ram. A month or two of work and the rest of the year hanging out with the chaps. And the work isn’t too bad either.
Round here the sheep mating season has started. The rams, or tups as they call them in Lancashire and many other areas, are equipped with harnesses called raddles holding a coloured ink pad (a ‘crayon’) across the chest, and let into the field where the females, some experienced mothers and some of this spring’s female lambs now grown up, are waiting for them. My friend who is a sheep farmer’s wife tells me the rams stink to high heaven, but to the ewes the aroma is as fragrant and appealing as Brut. In fact the smell is pheromones which induce the ewes to come into season.
As the ram services the ewe, the colour from the crayon rubs on to her rump, so the farmer can see which ones have been mated and which have not. The crayon is changed for a different colour roughly every week so the farmer knows to within a few days when the lambs will be born. The usual gestation period is five months minus five days so a sheep that is tupped on November 5 should lamb on April 1, when the grass is starting to grow. Further south, earlier mating can produce lambs in the New Year.
One ram can service 50 sheep, and the business takes six to eight weeks. When all the sheep are mated the ram is taken back to his field where he will spend the next ten months with his colleagues until duty calls again.
The females will be scanned later to see if they are pregnant and if so, how many lambs they are expecting. If they have one lamb it is usual to put a coloured dot on the back of the neck, nothing for twins and a dot on the rump for triplets. This enables the farmer to make sure they are getting sufficient rations. If a ewe is not pregnant it may be sent for slaughter – no room for sentiment in farming – but if it is a young one it will usually be given another chance the following year. It will be marked with a line along the back to show that it is not in lamb.
The farmer I know uses Texel rams to cover his mule (crossbred) or Texel sheep. This combination produces meaty lambs and a high proportion of twins. Some of the females will be kept to replace ageing or barren ewes but the rest will go for slaughter.
To prevent inbreeding the rams are sold after a couple of years and new ones are bought. A good one is valuable and may fetch £500 to £800, and sometimes even more. They live around five years and in the end they also go for slaughter.
Other popular breeds of ram in this part of the world are Suffolk, with black face, ears and legs,
and Charollais Beltex (you can see a picture of one here). Each area has its own favourites depending on the climate and landscape conditions. There are apparently more breeds in Britain than anywhere else in the world and the National Sheep Association lists 81. My favourites include the Border Leicester which has a Roman nose and upright ears like a rabbit
and the Herdwick, native to the Lake District, which reminds me of a teddy bear.
Footnote: The Lancashire town of Ramsbottom, not far from us, is known disparagingly by its neighbours as ‘Tupsarse’.
Thanks to the readers who suggested solutions to the puzzle I reported last week concerning apparent electrical activity in sea water just before a thunderstorm. The consensus was that we had seen St Elmo’s Fire. You can read a good article about the phenomenon here with a great picture of a ship lit by it.
None of the pieces I have seen suggests that St Elmo’s Fire can be present within water – it is associated with pointed and vertical objects in the air such as ships’ masts, church spires and aircraft nose cones. I feel sure that what we saw was similar but not the typical St Elmo’s Fire. However I thought readers would enjoy this video of it playing across an airliner cockpit windscreen.
I think if I had been the pilot I would have been somewhat concerned but the individuals in this clip are as cool as cucumbers. Reassuring.