A fortnight ago the first lambs were born on Holker farm. At the moment it’s the youngest sheep, the first time mothers, that are giving birth and this means a higher degree of problems than the more experienced ladies who should start at the end of next week.
It’s a natural part of the cheesemaker and dairy farmer’s year; no young uns, no milk. We tend to consider birth to be an entirely natural part of any animal’s life and especially because we as humans have such ready access to medical advice and support, we forget that it’s a major undertaking. While having lunch up at the farmhouse, I saw Nicola’s notes for the first 2 weeks. The numbers of stillborn lambs to live lambs were pretty much neck and neck and where the lambs were born successfully, the inexperienced mothers didn’t know what to do with them and she’d made notes to bottle feed most of them.
After a couple of days the new mothers are giving milk. There’s not enough when there are only 15 or so sheep milking to start making cheese with it yet so it’s fed back to the new lambs by bottle. However in a few days’ time, a larger block of the flock will lamb all at once. This will be hectic work for Nicola but it will mean that in the Dairy we have enough sheep’s milk to start making St James again. OK so it’s only going to be enough for about 2 cheeses a day, but the season will be starting a mere 2 months since the last season ended.
In past years, Martin has stopped making sheeps milk cheese sometime in October. Last year we finally stopped making St James around the 7th November. He still has St James on his shop counter in Cartmel and stocks may actually last very nearly until the first of this season’s cheeses are ready to sell. This has never happened before. The reason it’s been possible this year is all down to the cows.
The cows won’t stop milking for a few months yet so the milking parlour has been kept going all through the winter and as Nicola was milking the cows anyway, it made sense to milk the few remaining sheep rather than dry them off early. Likewise because the parlour is up and running, this year it looks like Nicola and Martin will feed the new lambs on milk replacer and divert their mothers’ milk for cheesemaking earlier on. In other years, the lambs have continued to feed from their mothers until they were 30 days old as you either have to take a lamb off its mother at day 2 or day 30, there’s no in between. What this means for cheesemaking is that this year there will be St James from the beginning of February where last year it was March before cheese was being made.
The female lambs will be kept, reared and go on to join the flock. They will grow for a year or two before they are ready to have lambs of their own. The male lambs? Well, vegetarians look away, they will be sold at a month old as milk fed lamb, a very gentle flavoured meat without the gamey richness of older lamb and almost like a lamb version of veal.
When you think of all the effort on behalf of the sheep and the sacrifice of those boy lambs to the greater good of the cheese cause, it makes you look at that milk and its resulting cheese in a more thoughtful way. Respect the cheese. It is the quintessence of years and years hard work rearing the sheep, birthing the lambs, cultivating a good pasture and finally gentle and skilled handling in the dairy. Again I say, respect the cheese.