Sheperdess Racheal Dunning

March during peak lambing season is the busiest time of year for our Shepherdess, Racheal Dunning. She tells us about the highs, lows and some heartwarming moments.

Racheal Dunning is in the lambing shed surrounded by a cacophony of baaing and bleating from new additions to the flock and expectant ewes. “We’ve just picked up a critical case,” she says.  “We’ll give it some milk, put it under the heat lamp and hope that we win, and he lives.” 

She boils the kettle to heat up some milk, and volume levels rise to match the lambs’ obvious excitement. “They’re not silly when it comes to food,” Racheal laughs. It’s a hectic time of year on the farm when long days of lambing, penning, feeding, watering, tagging and critical care can stretch late into the night. “You’ve got to be passionate about it,” she says.

Racheal’s very open about the challenges that come with her day to day. “No-one wants to lose anything, ideally, but sadly where there’s life there’s also death,” she says. Sometimes, new lambs are rejected, but she’s adept in the adoption process to much success. “If you know a ewe is having one lamb and you’ve got a lamb in the pet pen, I can foster one on,” Racheal explains. “I’ll tie the legs of the adopted lamb together so that they flop around like a newborn and can’t get up and run away. While I’m pulling the other lamb, I’ll put the adopted one underneath, so it gets covered during birth and smells like mum – most of the time they take it.”

“That lamb then has a new lease of life because they’ll always do better on a ewe than on a bottle,” says Racheal. “Having a mum teaches them essential skills that I can’t teach them. Sheep aren’t as silly as they look: they know what plants are good for their health or can get rid of belly ache and they’ll pass that on to their lamb.”  

Of course, she’s not averse to stepping in to nurture new arrivals in need of a little extra support. “There are a few in the pet pen that I am mum to,” Racheal admits. “I’ll do everything I can. I’m a bit of a sap really. I’m sure a lot of other farmers would give up, but if they’re there, I’m going to give them everything I’ve got.”

Out in the fields come late spring

Racheal’s been milking cows since she was 19 and has 15 dogs at home, including pups, bringing one or two of them with her to the farm each day. While it might be an unexpected career choice for some, “farming’s all I’ve ever really done,” she says. “When you tell other people, and they say they’ve never met a Shepherdess before, you forget that it’s an unusual thing. Working with the dogs is one of my favourite things and I get to bring my best friends to work.” 

Our estate lambs are reared by mum until weaning time, four to five months from now, and get to around 45kg before we send them off. They’re reared outside as much as possible: “we want them to go out and enjoy the sunshine and the lush grass,” says Racheal. “They’re moved around to make sure they’ve got enough grass around them at all times.” So you might spot them in the fields on any strolls around the estate. 

For Racheal, lambing is 100 per cent the best part of the job. “Lambing is the bit you work all year for,” she enthuses. “You’ve made sure that the ewes are in good condition; you’ve put the ram out; you’ve kept grass in front of them to make sure they’re growing their lamb really well; and then you get to see all the tiny cute little results of your hard work throughout the year. You get to watch them run around the field together and have wacky races. I don’t think there’s a better sight.”

Working so closely with the lambs, Racheal gets to witness some touching moments, such as when they paw at each other to go and play. “You’ll see a group of 20 of them running up and down the field, full pelt,” she says. They’re surprisingly good at recognition too. “Sheep can remember faces, of other sheep and of people,” says Racheal. “They say they can remember them for about two years, and can recognise up to 50 faces, so they actually have friends.”

The critical case Racheal thought wouldn’t pull through just 20 minutes earlier has miraculously perked up and is now strong enough to drink. “Hopefully it will get stronger and stronger, and I’ll see it out in the field and think, ‘that’s alive because I put some work into it.’ It’s an amazing feeling.”

• Shepherdess Racheal will be bringing some of our new lambs over to the gardens throughout the Easter holidays for visitors to see. When not tied up on the farm, she’ll be on hand to talk through lambing season and answer any questions from inquisitive young minds. 

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