The sun is shining and it's one of those beautiful spring days. Skylark song fills the air, trees are breaking into leaf. Everything is, as they say, perfick! Sue is creosoting the new shed and I am earthing up the newly planted early potatoes while the dogs chase each other round and round the veg plot. A few chickens know how to hop the fence and are pecking around and our turkey stag is in constant attendance, still all fluffed up and chest pumping - he inflates himself and then lets the air out all at once with an oomph! In the stables, the newborn lambs are doing well despite the constant protestations of the geese, two of whom have decided to sit on their nests all day long.
These are simple pleasures which make Sue and I very happy indeed.
But there's always a but! We have worked hard for this and there have been some difficult times too. Smallholding has a habit of throwing up the biggest challenges when you least expect them. We weren't brought up on farms and have had to learn quickly, for we are now responsible for many lives.
I headed out to the stable to give our orphan lamb, Rameses, his early morning feed. The sun wasn't yet up but there was a glimmer of light in the sky. As I opened the stable door I saw one of the other lambs just laying there on the straw. It wasn't moving. A wave of sadness came over me for there was clearly nothing I could do for this poor little lamb. It looked so peaceful and so perfect. It hadn't been dead too long and mum was still nuzzling it.
Young animals and birds are always at their most vulnerable in the first few days. The longer they survive, the stronger they become. We had thought the lambs were past the most dangerous period. All were feeding well and bouncing around their pens.
The dead lamb was the only girl. Mum and brother looked perfectly healthy. Spring on the smallholding is very much about new life and sometimes, just sometimes, that new life is delicate and nature takes its course. It doesn't upset us so much now as when we first encountered it, but I still have a heavy heart as I write 24 hours later. And we both felt guilty. Was our inexperience to blame for the loss of this young life? Was there something we should or shouldn't have done that would have made a difference?
My first thoughts went to our comical efforts the day before to castrate the young boys. I'll come back to this in a minute. Fair to say we didn't have much success but no lambs came to any harm. But that was my first thought. Had we inadvertently hurt one of them? But this was the girl, so it couldn't be down to that. All I could think was that she had somehow failed to get enough milk. She didn't feel particularly skinny, though a small lamb is just skin and bone anyhow. But maybe she hadn't fed and couldn't keep her body heat up during the night.
The surviving boy seemed to be feeding okay, but he was nudging mum's teats hard and more often than usual. I felt the ewe's udders. They felt really hard and a little lumpy. My thoughts went to mastitis, a not uncommon bacterial infection of the udders which can be serious for both lamb and ewe. But we had no direct experience of this. We felt the other ewes' udders and they felt softer.
Now, back to those efforts to castrate. If you're a bloke, you may want to cross your legs at this point! I know it sounds cruel but it really isn't. There's no knife involved. It simply involves stretching a small rubber ring over the lamb's scrotum and then letting it tighten. Time does the rest and the lambs really don't seem to experience any suffering. Male sheep do grow faster and bigger without this 'operation', but since we keep our sheep into a second year it would vastly complicate arrangements if all the young rams had to be kept away from their sisters and mums!
So, the rubber ring. Once it is closed, the two tiny testicles obviously need to be in the 'ballbag' on the opposite side of the rubber ring to the rest of the lamb. But that is much easier said than done, for every time we approached those little balls just kept disappearing! We tried on three different boys, but each time without success and we didn't want to stress the poor little things too much. So we aborted the operation and called for help.
A while back I started up a Facebook group for our Smallholders Club and it has been absolutely brilliant. One message from Sue and, within an hour, we had four offers of help. Otherwise it would have meant an expensive visit from the vet. Every vet call out adds about a tenner to the price of each lamb.
And so it was that yesterday afternoon a fellow smallholder with more sheep-keeping experience than us arranged to come over and show us how to do the deed. This, as it happened, was very fortuitous given the current mastitis scare.
Firstly he showed us how to apply the rings to said area. It really was quite easy. Where we had been going wrong was in sitting the lambs on our lap. They needed to be held up by their front legs (not harmful atall) so that gravity made everything fall, so to speak.
Very quickly all five boys were done.
It was then time to turn our attention to that ewe. James turned her over and felt her udders. He knew how to get milk out - this is quite tricky with sheep and needs experience to acquire the knack - but one side of the udder was very hard and virtually no milk was coming out. He too thought it looked like mastitis, so we called the vet. We have to think about our costs, but at the end of the day the welfare of the animals comes first. Besides, losing a breeding ewe and having to bottle feed another lamb would not be cheap.
Today was not turning into a good day. The weather knew it, for yesterday's spring sunshine had been replaced by some decidedly heavy April showers. As we worked with the sheep it was, as Sue would say, stotting it down outside.
And when the vet came (a new vet who has just moved into the area, which is brilliant as our other vets are quite a distance away) it stotted it down again. Like Sue he came from the North-East and before I knew it they were talking clarts and yan tan tither - don't ask, I don't know.
The ewe, it turned out, did not have mastitis, but the vet was concerned about her hard udder and prescribed two injections of antibiotics just in case mastitis was developing. While he showed Sue how to administer this, I looked away! I don't do needles.
We showed the dead lamb to the vet and he confirmed that all looked healthy. Its stomach wasn't empty either. He informed us that deaths at three days old are quite unusual in lambs and that in all likelihood we had just been unlucky and that this was a "lie-on". You can work out what that means.
Everything else we had done was good. The pens, the straw, the feed. That poor little lamb had just got unlucky. We still need to keep an eye on the ewe and she needs another injection in a couple of days. Her lamb now gets a little supplementary milk from the bottle every time we feed Rameses. But hopefully all has turned out not too bad. All we need do now is await the vet's bill.
I've just returned from the stables after this morning's feed and I'm glad to say that all four ewes and all five ram lambs seem in good health. Later this week they will all be able to go outside and we've even been advised to try putting Rameses outside. Hopefully he will become a stealer - learning to grab a bit of milk here and there before the ewes notice. But I've a feeling he'll still be coming for his bottle feed for a while yet.
This morning the sky is clear and the blackbirds are singing again. I've been up since half past four and I'm hoping for a good day.
Last year the swallows returned on this date. The year before it was three days later. I'm watching the skies. If they make it back in the next three days they'll share the stables, just for a while, with the lambs.