Friday 5 March 2010, 11:45
How did I end up spending six months training to be a shepherdess?
A few months ago I got a phone call from one of the very grown up big cheeses at the BBC who said "We've got this marvellous idea for a brand new live series called Lambing Live. We want to do five programmes on five consecutive nights on a farm, the week that all the sheep give birth."
And I said "Are you mad?! Are people going to want to watch this?!"
We started talking more about it and I realised it could be genius. Sheep are an intrinsic part of the British landscape. You can't have a chocolate box scene without sheep looking pretty on a hillside but how much do we actually know about them?
And the fact is, we love lamb. I think I'm right in saying it's Britain's favourite meat and yet how do we connect the little white fluffy things on a hillside with lamb and mint sauce on a plate? How does one become the other?
I realised I was woefully ignorant about one of the most common farm animals in this country and that this was a fantastic opportunity to find out more. So in September last year I started training on a sheep farm in South Wales owned by this wonderful family of farmers, the Beavans.
I feel an enormous responsibility to the Beavans, because lambing season is their make or break time - when they know, frankly, if they can put food on the table for their kids. I know that sounds over-dramatic, but it's true that lambing for them has to produce a number of lambs to keep their farm running for another year.
They have a job to do and I'm in a weird position. I feel like I'm carrying much more responsibility than I am on Springwatch where if the robin doesn't turn up, it's not my fault. Lambing Live is hopefully going to make interesting television which people are going to love, but equally I have a huge emotional attachment to this family I've been working with for the last six months and I don't want the lambing to fail. I have to help the Beavans have the most successful lambing they can have.
The Beavans have 900 ewes and my introduction to the world of sheep farming was at an auction in September where Jim schooled me in how to spot good rams to buy to introduce to the flock.
I thought I'd just say "He's nice looking, I'll go for that one", but Jim identified some fairly specific criteria. Firstly he said to look for a small head.
I said "Don't you want a big-headed, proud looking ram?". No - you have to think of the ewe who's going to have the offspring of a ram with a big head.
Secondly you need a ram with good strong hind quarters. A ram is going to do quite a lot of standing up on his back legs (and I'll leave that to your imagination but that's the breeding process!) and the other thing is that the leg of lamb, which is one of our favourite cuts of meat, is those back legs. So are they good, chunky, meaty back legs?
Bear in mind, this was the first day I met Jim so I thought he was taking the mickey when he told me the final check was the testicle test. I have to say, without wanting to be rude but potentially I'm going to be... a ram is a well-hung beast, there's none of this hidden testicles in amongst the wool, these hang down like a handbag! You need to check, are they the same size, a good pair? And the only way to find out is to get your hand in there.
Before introducing the new rams to the flock and letting nature take its course, we needed to tart the ewes up a bit. Now sheep are a little bit messy in the rear end department. They poo on the ground but quite a lot gets stuck on the way down, if you know what I mean. So we had to shear the tails and back ends of the ewes to remove the poo. It was jolly hard work and we did 100 in a morning. By the end of it, I thought, there's a lot more to sheep farming than looking out on a field and going "Those are my sheep".
But it's been the most fantastic experience and the real highlight was scanning 300 of the ewes which are due to give birth live on the programme. It was the most freezing January day, about -6C, when we got proof that the rams had done their work and the ewes were pregnant. We are expecting about 600 lambs to be born in the next week or two, so we're in for a very, very busy time.
I've already lambed a couple of sheep. I've seen lambs at the very first breath of life and I'd be lying if I said I didn't find that slightly emotional. New birth is a miracle and you do feel wrapped up in it. But these sheep are there for a reason and they're there for us. Jim and farmers like him are providing us with the meat we buy.
So ultimately what we are giving birth to is somebody's Sunday lunch. That's a hard thing for some people who find it very convenient to divorce the live animal in the field with the chop on a polystyrene tray. So what I hope this series will do is two things really.
I hope that people will see from the way the Beavans look after their stock and their land that farmers are a vital part of Britain's society, providing us with our meat.
And I also hope people will think a little more about the food on their plate - I hope Lambing Live will add to that eminent list of programmes and people who have tried to reconnect us with the origins of our food.
In episode one, you'll see me looking perky and by episode five I'll be exhausted. I know I won't have any sleep and I should probably have thought carefully about how I'm going to manage that, but I'm not sure you can ever prepare for something this intensive. I'm really excited so I'm hoping adrenaline and sheer nerves will get me through.
The one thing I'm worried about is that I really feel the cold. When I get cold, most of my brain shuts down. It may just end up being incoherent babble from me every night. But I am a big fan of Bovril and hot blackcurrant, so there are my diva demands. Some ask for baskets of puppies and I just want Bovril and loads of tea.
UPDATE: I've written a new post since the series finished - if you wanted to have a look at Lambing Live: I'd love to do it all again.
Kate Humble is the presenter of Lambing Live which starts Sunday, 7 March at 8pm on BBC Two
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Wednesday 3 March 2010, 11:20
Monday 8 March 2010, 08:41