Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Farming life: Like a lamb to slaughter

A fellow farmer tried to share the gruesome and astonishing reality of the lambing season with his followers. But on social media, traditions can be easily misunderstood 
May 10, 2023

Lambing time is a busy and involving affair, and family life for our flock is not always straightforward. Sheep typically give birth to two lambs in the springtime each year, but some may have only one, others three or more. Some mothers won’t have enough milk for all their offspring, while those with only one lamb will have more than they need. There are also mothers who reject their offspring, and those who forget how many young they have and wander off, leaving one or more behind. Some mothers even sit or roll on their lambs—it can be a rather gruesome and astonishing time.

Lambs that are rejected—or whose mothers don’t have enough milk—join the gang of orphans that are bottle fed by the shepherd, although the best thing is to be adopted by another ewe who is a mother. For centuries, shepherds have “adopted out” orphan lambs to mothers who have perhaps lost their own young. Outside the farmyard, the common and historic process might seem macabre—we literally skin the dead lamb and fit the skin to the orphan lamb like a little coat. The orphan then smells like the sheep’s own offspring, which gives the adoption the biggest chance of success, and the orphan lamb the best chance of life.

Recently, a well-known Welsh hill farmer shared a video of this common practice online and received death threats in response. While the police were investigating the death threats, the rapid response team of the “Twitter police” questioned the motivation behind the video—was it educational and informative, or provocative and attention seeking? In a since-deleted tweet, a prominent English farmer accused the Welshman of being the “UK’s farming answer to Nigel Farage”, provoking controversy for the sake of it. 

In the brevity of a social media post, long-practised agricultural methods can be misunderstood

With battle lines drawn, anyone with an opinion was falling in behind either the Welshman (“appalling tweet”) or with the Englishman; (“nail + head”). Everyone had an opinion, and they were all too happy to share it.

In recent years, threats to those in the public eye have become all too common, with the ownership of a social media account oft-treated as a licence to interject, threaten and abuse. Many farmers who are using social media to open the farm gate to the world have been met with poor behaviour from the least savoury portion of the online community. Often, in the brevity of a social media post, long-practised or complex agricultural methods can be misunderstood. Online, we tend to shoot first and ask questions later. 

And, it would seem, farmers themselves are not immune to outbursts, as demonstrated by this recent “blue-on-blue” (or should that be “green-on-green”?) action. 

In the real world of farming, the wet weather has caused problems for new-born lambs and calves; it’s delayed the sowing of spring crops and interrupted other springtime farming activities. A neighbour recently shared with me how he felt pressured, having not had a day off since October. Perhaps these frustrations have simply spilled over onto social media. 

I’m a big believer in unity; politically, nationally and both within agriculture and beyond. Were we to unite and look beyond the bickering on our screens, we would see winter-sown crops and grass growing well in the fields. Thankfully, it appears that the English farmer agrees with me—he issued an apology for his tweet a few days later.  Now we can focus on the good news that farming is a huge part of the answer to the big questions that our society is asking, from climate change mitigation to mental health, from nutrition to nature.