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Spring lamb

Posted by on April 23, 2013

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.

Lamb 2However, 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.

Margaret

3 Responses to Spring lamb

  1. Nicola Stevens

    Well spring has well in the last couple of days it seems. I think that the positive contribution in the history of England is unacknowledged. The fortunes of England from the Middle Ages onwards have been made from the wool trade. The English were exceptionally good a rearing the right sheep for wool. Thank goodness, families like yours ran with the changes of technology to build and sustain such a long lasting business.

  2. Margaret McAlpine

    Too right Nicola. The dog may be man’s best friend, but overall the sheep has been by far the most useful animal. Sheep breeding in the 18th century would merit a book on its own – there probably is one – but it seems that later in the 19th century fleeces were imported from around the world, especially from Australia and New Zealand. I never thought such a humble creature could be so interesting!

  3. Diana Devlin

    Just back from Cumbria, where the lovely Herdwick lambs are often black.

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