Island scandal: mothers neglect their children

It’s the same every year. They arrive in mid April with their offspring and immediately forget they’ve given birth to them, preferring to pursue their own selfish pleasures of eating and drinking followed by wild nights under the stars. The plaintive calls of their babies echo round the island and go unheeded: Mummy couldn’t care less.

Best selling copies of shepherds’ diaries and cute pastoral posters conspire to hide the truth: sheep are rubbish mothers.

Every year the trailer pulls up outside my kitchen window and I watch as a large group of ewes descend the ramp, eventually followed by the lambs who’ve been penned in at the front. Does a noisy melée follow while mothers frantically try to be reunited with their babies? Does it heck. The ewes haven’t seen any grass for at least a day (obviously a decade in sheep years) and they saunter off in pursuit of gastronomic pleasure, leaving their tiny scraps of new life wandering around and wondering where Mummy’s gone.

Perhaps ewes can’t believe they’ve given birth to such curious creatures. With their adult sized, helicopter rotor ears, wrinkly skin, wobbly front legs and over-long back legs pushing their rear ends up and forwards to create a sort of hump, making their bodies look as if they’ve been involved in a shunt, new born lambs aren’t exactly at their most attractive.

They occasionally manage to stagger round the field and find their mother who allows them to access her teats so they can suckle some nourishment. And even though their interest in their own young appears at best desultory, woe betide any lamb that tries to grab a quick drink from a strange ewe. The resultant headbutt and vicious kick that sees off the interloper can make you wonder how any of the lambs survive.

The nights are the worst. The joyless, pathetic, nay, heart-rending bleats of a lamb intent on finding its mother cut through the dark and keep most of the island awake as we lie there waiting, hoping that a ewe will give a half-hearted grunt as a vocal clue to her whereabouts. To be fair, she does. After about an hour.

Twins have a slightly better time of it because they tend to stick together and at least have each other for company but when they both decide they could do with a bit of Mummy time and launch into discordant bleating, you might as well give up.

And you can tell they’re twins not by looks, because they often bear no resemblance to each other, but by the large matching numbers the farmer writes on their flanks so he can tell at a glance if a ewe should have two lambs with her. Every time twins bearing the number 66 wander past my window, I can’t help thinking of the boating lake joke.

First attendant: Come in number 99, your time is up.
Second attendant: We haven’t got 99 boats.
First attendant: Are you in trouble number 66?

But lambs number 66 and their ilk don’t stay in trouble for long. Their bodies straighten, the wrinkles are ironed out, front and rear legs almost achieve equality and each lamb takes on the woolly cuteness of their poster selves. And their mothers respond by becoming, if not exactly doting, then certainly protective, feeding them often, shielding them and suffering in silence when their offspring climb aboard and bounce up and down on their thick, copious fleece.

The rules change but our sleepless nights don’t. Now when a lamb, born with the ability to recognise its mother’s voice within 24 hours, wanders off during the night, it’s the mother who paces up and down, the stentorian bleat echoing around the island as she searches for her young who studiously ignores her. Baa!