My family history being bound up with wool textile manufacture in Yorkshire I have taken an interest in the raw product – sheep’s wool. My ancestors were only interested in the fleeces and not the earlier stages of animal husbandry. But flocks grazing on hillsides were a common sight in the 19th century and even for us ‘townies’ today seem part of the natural order of things. There are few sights and sounds are more endearing than lambs in Spring and the bleating that goes with it.
These cute little creatures are such an iconic image of April, and Easter itself which falls around this time. Some flocks may start early lambing in January and February – possibly inside or the ewe and lamb may be brought into shelter immediately after birth. As grass growth is limited by cold weather, early lambing tends to be undertaken only in lowland flocks that have extra food available. One purpose of early lambing is to supply fresh lamb to the Easter market when prices are traditionally high. Spring lamb is usually 3-5 months old and sold before July. In the upland districts of Yorkshire or Cumbria lambs are not born until March or April.
However, it has been such a late cold Spring this year that more southerly counties are affected. I recently twice led a walk through rural Essex which went through a farmyard near Stansted Mountfitchet. I was struck by how few sheep there had lambed on Good Friday, compared with most of the flock two weeks later. On the second occasion, one little creature, only a few days old and still in a pen with its mother, was so friendly and fearless. It made our day – see photo opposite. Unfortunately, despite a vague appreciation of all the different breeds, I could not say which these ones were. My ancestors had to do better when buying fleeces – it was a critical task with many factors determining the quality of the wool, diet among them. Today most sheep in this country are reared for meat rather than wool, but shearing still takes place in June/July to keep the sheep cool and help prevent blowflies laying eggs in the wool.