Kate Humble teaches townies about life in lambing season

Among the batch of tutees is Radio Times’ own Terry Payne

It’s one of those slightly nonsensical facts of life that a farmer should earn more from inviting a stranger to insert a gloved hand into one of his pregnant ewes than he does from raising and selling the lamb that stranger is very inexpertly trying to extract. Such are the topsy-turvy economics of farm life. Or perhaps, more positively, it’s a welcome example of how town and country are at last learning to live together and benefit each other.


When it’s ready for market in around six months’ time – always assuming it doesn’t succumb to disease or predation – the newborn lamb is likely to fetch anything between £55 and £85. The charge levied on this visitor for the privilege of being an active participant in its birth, including (camp) bed, breakfast and evening meal, a very happily spent £180.

The arithmetic speaks for itself. Of course, the popularity of this particular lambing course might not be unconnected with the fact that this Monmouthshire farm is owned by Kate Humble and her husband, former film-maker Ludo Graham. But that would be to employ city-acquired cynicism. And we left that behind at the farm gate.

Pretty much all those attending – including a north London schoolteacher, a West Country shop owner and a local physio – are here because they harbour dreams of owning a bit of land and a few livestock. The star-gazing they’re fascinated by is not Humble mucking out the cowshed, serving up our meal of lasagne, or running the end-of-course quiz, but of the birthing trait they’ve been told to look out for among the 30 or so pregnant ewes currently in the lambing shed (more of which later).

It’s a dream that Humble knows only too well. In 2010, she and Graham were looking for extra land to supplement their own smallholding nearby. They ended up buying this 117-acre farm from the council to save it from being broken up. Now, tenant Tim Stephens and his wife Sarah run the farm with its 220 Welsh mountain and Texel sheep and Hereford cattle, while Humble and hubby try to keep the books balanced with a range of extra-curricular activities.

“Farming per se – just producing food – is rarely enough to make a farm pay for itself these days,” says Humble. “It comes down to this odd relationship we have with food in the West. We don’t think we should pay very much for it, we can waste as much of it as we like, we can eat whatever we want at whatever time of the year we want… It’s just a very disrespectful relation- ship and, because of that, farmers can’t just rely on producing food to make themselves a living. You have to diversify.”

And one way to do that, of course, is embrace the hand of television whenever it comes knocking, as it does this week with the return, after a three-year gap, of Lambing Live. This year the series heads to the Scottish Borders and to a farm with more than 1,000 sheep – nearly half of which are expected to lamb during the week of programming.

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As Humble explains, the farmer’s calculation of the ideal lambing date is based on some certainties – the ewe will be pregnant for around 147 days, for instance – but many unknowns, chiefly the buoyancy or otherwise of the market and the condition of the grazing land.

“The season is always dictated by the farmer, based on their knowledge of the land and of the market,” says Humble. “The date he puts the ram in with the ewes dictates when the lambs will be born. There is thinking that if you have early lambs, say in January, you can get them to market before it is flooded and so the price will be better. But the counter-argument is that if you have lambs in January, you’re probably not going to have any grass to put them out onto, so you’ll have to feed your lambs much more until they’ve put on enough weight to be sold. It’s always a bit of a gamble.”

And it’s that dice-throwing aspect of farming that she’s trying to hedge against on her own farm. There are courses scheduled for most weekends between now and November, with expert advice on everything from foraging and baking to beekeeping and pig-rearing. (If you haven’t got room for your own sty, they’ll rear a pig for you and even arrange the slaughter and butchery.)

“The farm still has a place and a purpose and with clever diversification we can try to ensure that it has a future. It has to work financially, but it has to support and fit in with the community. We have got incredible local talent around us, incredible artisan producers. We want the farm to be something of a showcase for them.”

The 24-hour-lambing and the smallholding- for-beginners courses are certainly the most popular, confirming in Humble’s view that the public wants to befriend the world of farming in a more hands-on way.

“If it hadn’t have been for Lambing Live, I wouldn’t have been brave enough, stupid enough or perhaps both to take on this farm. In that sense it’s totally changed my life. But what I have discovered is there’s a real appetite for knowledge. People do want to know about this stuff.”

Which is why the ten of us paying guests leap from our beds at 2am when Humble’s voice bursts over the farm radio. “Hello, dormitory. This is the lambing shed. A ewe is in labour.” We assemble bleary-eyed and scan the faces of the sheep searching for some of the birthing signs taught to us earlier in the day, including the so-called “star gazing” when the ewe stretches out through what one can only imagine is an uncomfortable contraction and looks to the heavens. “Only a man could have come up with such a lyrical term,” laughs a fellow student. “Not someone who has actually given birth.”

Humble falls into that category. “I’ve never gone through this myself, but I’m always amazed by just how well they deal with the labour,” she says. “They are just so stoical and resilient.”

Six hours later we’re back in the lambing shed, and the stoicism is firmly on the side of the pregnant ewe I’m crouching over. “What do you feel?” says farmer Tim, offering instruction in a life skill that has thus far passed me by – the vaginal examination. I sense “out of my depth” isn’t the answer he’s looking for.

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Half an hour earlier the ewe currently and, to her enormous credit, uncomplainingly accommodating the lower half of my right, gloved arm, had popped out one female lamb. Its twin sister isn’t quite as forthcoming. “Well, it’s really warm in here,” I offer by way of pathetic stalling. “But can you feel anything?” Tim persists patiently. “Yeah, it’s really very warm.”

I consider suggesting that making up milk feeds is what real modern-day men do when, in a moment of anatomical assuredness that I doubt my wife would recognise, I feel a twiglet of a leg and then the outline of a tiny head, and then on the other side another leg that seems tucked under the body.

I pull gently on the leg that’s presenting normally and with my left hand attempt to tease the other leg free as well. It straightens out, but the birthing fluids make grip nigh impossible. Tim, totally calm, attaches a short cord to the left leg. Then, with one hand on the cord and the other on the right leg, I pull on both front limbs simultaneously. In a jelly-bowl-like slurp the baby lamb slides out, its body still coated by the protective yellow liquor, and to my obviously novice eye is patently dead. 
I help Tim clear the liquid from around its mouth and nose and offer it up to Mum, who starts to lick it clean. And then quite miraculously, to me at least, it starts to wriggle and breathe.

If not a beautiful moment it’s a life- affirming one. And for a few proud minutes I overlook the fact that in six months’ time Louise, along with her twin sister Thelma, will most likely be taking pride of place on someone’s plate alongside the new potatoes, peas and mint sauce. Just for now she’s my little baby lamb.

See Lambing Live Tuesday – Friday 8:00pm, BBC2

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