A Nicheworks interview with Martin Dent, Hill Farmer
Interviewed April 2000
April is prime lambing time and marks the start of the busiest time of year for farmers. The weather plays a crucial part in the success rate of lambing and also in the degree of hardship for the farmer.
It is a 24-hour day, although surprisingly ewes tend to wait until the early hours of the morning to lamb, rather than in the dead of night. Dry sunny weather appears to cause a temporary halt in lambing, with a subsequent profusion when the weather returns to rain and cool temperatures.
Many of Martin's sheep are Cheviot Cross, with 350 ewes, producing 120 sets of twins and 100 singles this year. All his ewes lamb outdoors, although he brings those expecting twins down to a meadow near the farm, for easier supervision.
He employs one man to help out at lambing time, but relies on his own stockmanship and stamina to cope with the immense pressures at this time of year. He checks his ewes regularly throughout the day and night and knows from experience when a ewe is ready to lamb and whether she is experiencing difficulties. A ewe herself will know if something is not right and from her behaviour or look Martin can anticipate if he will need to provide assistance.
Usually, a lamb will be delivered in a short space of time, ten minutes being the average time. The ewes will seek a sheltered spot by a wall or tree to lamb and within minutes after birth the lamb will be suckling.
Apart from Cheviot Cross, Martin also keeps pure bred Swaledale and keeps some of the gimmers to breed off next year. All male lambs from all breeds go for meat, in July or August, to the auction marts in Kirkby Stephen. The gimmers are taken to Hawes to be sold for breeding, apart from Cheviot Cross gimmers, which are generally sold for meat.
The cross between a Leicester ram and a Swaledale ewe is known as a mule and the mule gimmer lambs are worth the most for breeding. They are sold to buyers in the south of England to be tupped with Suffolks. The mule gimmer sales at Hawes used to see some spectacularly high prices when sheep farming was good - 70-80 pounds for a good mule gimmer.
Martin keeps six of his own tups, including a Swaledale, two Leicesters and a Cheviot. The Leicester tups, although often the most expensive to purchase - sometimes worth up to 1,000 pounds during the good times - are very temperamental and can drop down dead for no known reason!