Wednesday 24 Sep 2014
Sixteen million lambs are born every year in the UK and these white woolly creatures are worth a staggering £625m (2009) to the UK's economy. This makes lambing season the biggest and busiest event in the farming calendar but it can also be a fraught, and sometimes risky, business bringing with it a rollercoaster ride of sleepless nights, complicated births, orphans and adoptions.
For five nights BBC Two is once again right at the heart of the action with live, nightly updates capturing the life-and-death drama of lambing as it unfolds.
This year, there's a new farm and a new family as Kate Humble is apprenticed to the Marstons, a sheep farming dynasty spanning three generations, born and bred in the picturesque Eden Valley on the very eastern edge of Cumbria.
The farm is jointly run by Andrew Marston and his father, Donald. The men work closely together and also live next door to each other on the edge of the farmyard with their wives, Rachel and Christine.
The Marstons have made their lives in the remote and sometimes harsh world of hill farming – much of the lambing is done outdoors and flocks are brought down to the "in bye" land near the farmhouse to lamb under the shepherd's watchful eye. Last year, the Beavans were breeding commercially for meat, but for the Marstons it's all about breeding stock. For them it's not just about the numbers, they're looking for quality and pure blood lines.
There are currently 698 pregnant sheep on the farm expecting a total 1,268 lambs, a mixture of 159 singles, 443 pairs of twins, 69 sets of triplets and four sets of quads. These are a mixture of pure bred Swaledales, Beltexes, North of England Mules and Blue Faced Leicesters. The Marstons also breed cattle. And then there's Hope and Lyn, the sheepdogs, and Smudge and Coco (apprentice but eager sheepdogs), Blaze, the dales cross fell pony, a few assorted chickens and a very old duck.
The Marston family
Andrew grew up on the farm and now runs it jointly with the family as a business. Donald is still very active in the day-to-day running of the farm and puts a lot of work into the cattle side of the business, while Andrew's passion lies with the pedigree Swaledales. Andrew, his wife, Rachel, and their three daughters, Catherine, Abigail and baby Olivia, live in a converted barn adjoining the original farmhouse which Donald, and Andrew's mum, Christine, call home.
Andrew's wife, Rachel, has been farming all her life. She's the linchpin of the family operation, looking after the children, assisting on the farm and bringing in extra income by working part-time as an accounts assistant. She and Andrew have been together since they were teenagers and one of the first presents she ever bought him was a sheep – presented in a pink ribbon – for his 18th birthday.
Andrew's dad, Donald, was born into a farming family and has been involved in farming his whole life. The farm was originally bought by his wife, Christine's, grandparents in 1912 but Donald joined them on the farm when he married Christine in 1972. Two generations later and farming here is still very much a family affair, with three generations all mucking in at various times of the year.
Andrew's mum, Christine, is a farmer's daughter and is an old hand when it comes to lambing, having done it for decades with Donald before Andrew took over. These days she is still called upon to get involved and when lambing season arrives she is in charge of tagging. Christine also works part-time as a teaching assistant at a local school.
Kate's TV career started behind the camera as a researcher on Animal Hospital and Holiday, though it wasn't long before she was appearing on screen. She has presented a wide range of programmes, including Amazon Abyss, Tomorrow's World, City Hospital, Top Gear and The Frankincense Trail. Her love of wildlife has made her synonymous with Springwatch and Autumnwatch, which she has presented since 2005.
Following on from the steep learning curve of last year, Kate now has a good grasp of the shepherding basics. But, since being apprenticed to the Marstons in September, she's been discovering that hill sheep demand a new set of skills and a whole new language. She's been helping with the "fell gather" (bringing the sheep down from the hills), learning about "hefting" (teaching the sheep to stay on the fell) and discovering what goes into producing a prize Swaledale. Come April, she'll be forced to call on her new skills when the cameras start rolling and the lambs start arriving. Kate also checks in with last year's farming family – the Beavans – to see how their year has gone and how lambing is going this spring.
Kate says: "Lambing is a make-or-break time for farmers all over the country and as well as helping to make this a successful season for the Marstons I'm hoping to give people a glimpse of what farming really means. It can be about breeding the best of the best, producing food for our table or the finest of wools. The more I learn, the more there is to learn. I know it's going to be exhausting, I know I'm not going to get any sleep, but I'm really excited about getting stuck in and getting my hands dirty again for another year of Lambing Live."
Adam Henson has delivered hundreds, if not thousands, of lambs on his 1,625-acre farm in the Cotswolds. As well as managing more than a thousand sheep, Adam's farm also includes the Cotswold Farm Park, which has more than 50 flocks and herds of rare breed farm animals, including 198 pigs, 14 highland cattle and 15 different breeds of sheep. His passion for rare breeds is one passed down to him from his father, Joe, and Adam has been involved with the farm since he was a small boy.
Since 2001, Adam has been a regular presenter on BBC One's Countryfile and reports in the regular feature Adam's Farm.
Lambing with the Marstons will also be a challenge for Adam – he's used to lambing indoors on his farm in the lush and relatively low lands of the Cotswolds but he's about to get a real taste of what it's like to be a hill farmer, putting his skills to the test in a very different environment. Adam also explores British sheep farming in all its many and varied forms. He's travelled the UK to unravel the story of wool, forsaking his wellies and venturing into the hallowed halls of the House of Lords in search of one of our greatest woollen treasures – the woolsack. He's also taken to the "droving" routes of Wales to find out how sheep were moved by foot to market before railways and road haulage, and made a journey to the Isle of Man in search of a plucky native sheep making an incredible comeback.
Adam says: "Lambing Live is a great way of showing audiences the real nuts and bolts and highs and lows of sheep farming. Our hearts are always warmed by the sights of lambs skipping in springtime, but behind the joy of new birth there is a huge amount of hard work, planning and complicated animal husbandry. I can't wait to get stuck in for a second series and, this year, being based on a hill farm in Cumbria is going to be a very different experience from the last. And, thankfully, with all the surprises of live TV I have Kate Humble by my side to see me through."
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