Clever old ewe

Mum with her lambs in the degradable jackets (Pictures from
A lamb is kept warm with a degradable jacket

I’m hoping that as we are now into April we have seen the last of the really cold weather, and that there is no more snow to come, particularly as the moors and hills of North Yorkshire are scattered with lambs.

Snow is a particular threat to young livestock, as my dad explains in his column from 7th April 1979 which followed a couple of weeks of really wintry weather. Apparently, the arctic conditions had led to a significant loss of life among sheep and their recently-born offspring.

He talks about one dales farmer who bought a large quantity of plastic jackets which were designed to protect the lambs from the cold and wet. They would wear them for the first critical hours, after which they ‘melted’ in the sun (the jackets that is, not the lambs).

This to me sounded quite far-fetched, but when I looked into it, I found that it is absolutely true and these little jackets are still used today. We wouldn’t use the word ‘melted’ nowadays when explaining how they break down, but of course when Dad was writing his piece, words relating to environmentally-friendly materials were not in such common usage.

After a lamb is born, the farmer or shepherd will dry it and clean it up, then put on one of these polythene jackets. The lamb then wears it for the first few days that it is exposed to the open air until it naturally sheds, or bursts out of, the jacket. As they are made from degradable materials, they decompose within a few weeks thanks to the ultraviolet rays in sunlight.

Although the are some reports of ewes rejecting or even attacking lambs wearing these coats, on the whole they are a very effective way of helping the youngsters survive during their first few days of life. The jackets also have the added benefit of deterring foxes who might fancy a lamb chop for tea. It seems that foxes, unlike humans, don’t like their food when it is wrapped in plastic. Maybe we could learn a thing or two from them.

Another interesting thing Dad mentions is an experiment carried out by scientists who wanted to determine how ewes and lambs find each other again once they become separated. Do they recognise each other by sight, or by sound?

In the experiment, three ewes were were taken away from their three-day old lambs and placed in pens at the end of a paddock. The lambs were kept out of sight for half an hour, mixed in with a pen full of other ewes and lambs, all bleating and baa-ing. Then, one by one, the lambs were released to see if they would find their way back to their mothers at the other end of the field. The test was then repeated with more than 50 lambs, and over 70% of them had no trouble finding their way back to their mothers.

Of course, in this instance, we still don’t know whether the lost lambs used the sight or sound of their mothers to guide them, but in a second experiment, the ewes were hidden by a tarpaulin. So the lambs only had the sound of their mother’s bleating to go on, and 60% of them found their way back to the right parent (I’m not sure of that counts as success or not!).

Sheep have an undeserved reputation for being rather stupid, when in fact they have shown they have brain power equal to that of monkeys and have been known use clever ways to seek out better sources of grass. In fact in 2004, some were spotted rolling over a cattle grid to get to the tastier pasture on the other side (my children display similar tactics when seeking out junk food).

A quick thank you to Maureen Dillon who contacted me about my piece about clover and shamrocks from three weeks ago. She says that clover has a white speck at the centre while shamrocks are all green. Does that apply to all species of clover I wonder? If you know the answer, do get in touch.

By the way, I’m very excited to be guest-presenting ‘God’s Own Countryfile’ on BBC Radio York on Wednesday April 10th from 7pm-9pm. Do listen in if you can, or catch up on the BBC Sounds app.

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 5th April and the Gazette & Herald on 3rd April 2019

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