Helping Minty the lamb with a couple of sensitive issues down on farm
Continuing a series of features looking at different jobs, Chris Jones steps on to the farm to help with lambing.
WRAPPED in my arms, the tiny lamb begins to struggle and bleat. Given what I'm about to do with his testicles, I can hardly blame him.
This is the business end of farming. I pass the gorgeous bundle of soft white wool to Chris Ward, farm co-ordinator here at Broomfield Hall, in Morley, to give me both hands free for the impending operation.
In return, Chris hands me a pair of what look like tweezers but which work in reverse. I give the handles a quick squeeze and the prongs open up, stretching wide the orange rubber band looped over the top.
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"OK, so what you're going to do is this," says Chris in his rich, sonorous voice, a voice made strong by years of trying to be heard across rainy farmyards and deafening cowsheds.
He adjusts our lamb – we'll call him Minty – in his arms and gently splays his gawky little legs.
"These are his testicles," he says, pointing a roughened finger at a furry little pouch.
"You want to get these between your fingers and guide them through the rubber band, then slowly release the handles. This will close the band around the balls.
"Be sure to miss these," he says, indicating two tiny pink nodes. "If you get it right, it won't hurt him but, if you catch these, he'll let you know."
Taking a deep breath, I lean in, trying to ignore the delightful little bleats from Minty, concentrating on the job in hand. I am Louis Theroux, I am objective, this is nature, this is natural and he won't feel a thing.
I clench the handles, take the soft little pouch in my hands and thread it through the band. I make sure both balls are fully through and gently release the handles.
It's down. And I have missed the nodes. Now the tricky bit.
I have to roll the contracted band off the end of the prongs and the only way to do this is by tugging fairly sharply. My whole body is tense like a fist as I work it slowly free and, in a few seconds, it's done.
Minty wriggles contentedly.
"Good job, that," says Chris. "Give it a week or two and they'll just drop off, won't hurt him a bit. Birds will have them then, I'm sure. Waste not, want not in nature."
Well, quite. And as for me, I can finally tick "Castrate a lamb" off the to-do list after 29 years of waiting.
For today's job, I have come to Broomfield Hall where Derby College operates a working farm used to train students in all aspects of agriculture.
We are right in the middle of lambing season and, while many professional farms will probably have seen all their lambs born by the end of February, Broomfield staggers things to give students and the public more of a chance to see the process first hand.
There are about 100 ewes and it seems I can hear every single one of them braying exasperatedly as Chris and I make our way through the hay-strewn shed, picking our way between pungent woollen bodies to the lambing pens beyond.
Chris explains: "In October, we would put the rams in with the ewes and let them stay with them until December time. After that, we can do an ultrasound scan – exactly like a pregnant woman might get – and we can see how many lambs they're expecting.
"We then paint blue marks on the ewes to show how many they might have and we can get 200 lambs over the course of two flocks in February and March."
Most of the lambs will be used for meat – sold internally within Derby College – with up to 20 being used to replace those ewes who might be past lambing years.
The birthing can happen at any time, but it is most likely to take place at night.
"Come up here at 10pm and you can hear a pin drop," says Chris. "Not like now, they wouldn't generally give birth in the daytime – it's too noisy.
"But we keep the lights on at night because they like to feel protected from predators and give birth in light."
For each of the lambs born, there is a process they need to undergo to get them ready for a springtime of frolicking.
It is a bright, cold day and, over by the lambing pens, mother ewes are partitioned off with their young.
Chris tells me that many of them were born only a couple of days ago, something which surprises me since they are already on their feet and nosing curiously around in the straw.
The first job is fairly straightforward. Chris picks up Minty and holds him still while I use some kind of hand-held tool to attach a tag to his ear. It works much like an ear-piercing – a brief pain which is over quickly, leaving a bright blue tag dangling from one floppy white ear.
Next comes the docking.
This once again involves the use of the reverse-tweezers – an elastrator – and attaching a band about two-thirds of the way up his tail.
Chris says: "The reason we do this is to avoid fly strike. This is where flies infest the body and they do this with a lamb when the tail gets covered in its waste. We dock it to keep it out of the way."
The process is the same as the castration – bloodless and largely painless. Once the band is in place, the tail will drop off after a week of two.
Next, we move on to the castration and, after that, Minty is good to go. I give him a quick, reassuring cuddle and set him down next to mum, to whom we now turn our attentions. There are two routine jobs with her – worming and hoof trimming.
Chris rolls her on to her side and brings her up to a sitting position, her back resting against his knees. He gestures me round and we switch positions.
Using a tool like a pair of secateurs, I clip the underside of her hooves, a tough fingernail-type of material which has curled underneath. I snip it back and use the point of the tool to dig out the compacted mud and crud built up underneath.
"He's got the hang of this," says Chris and he's right. There's something satisfying about the work.
Next, I feed a thin hose into mum's mouth, squirt a quick jet of worming fluid down her throat and we're all done.
But to underline the sheer amount of work in keeping livestock, Chris pays me a quick parting line: "That's one lamb. We've got 200 of them. And that's one ewe, we have 100 of them. And this is just one job on the farm for one time of the year."