Chapter 4 – Counting
Competition, we’re always being told, is good.
It’s what gives us choice and variety and it’s
what keeps prices down. But when sheep are concerned,
all competition has done is make their lives sadder and
Sheep always look so content grazing away in the countryside,
their little lambs running and jumping around, full of
the joys of spring. Don’t be fooled. That’s
about all the joy there is because in Britain alone four
million lambs don’t even survive the first few
days of life. In Australia, the sheep capital of the
world with 40 percent of lambs to die within this time.
It’s usually the cold or starvation that kills
In Britain and the West, most people don’t eat
sheep meat – called mutton – they eat lamb.
The natural time for ewes (female sheep) to give birth
to their lambs is in the spring but competition between
farmers has meant they’re now trying to get the
sheep to give birth earlier, at the end or even middle
of winter. If farmers can be amongst the first to sell ‘new
season’s lamb’ they get more money for it.
Over many thousands of years, wild ewes have evolved
to ovulate (become fertile) and mate in autumn so their
lambs are born when the worst of the winter has passed
and the grass has started to grow. It’s exactly
the same with farmed sheep. But many farmers now treat
the ewe with hormones which trick her body into thinking
it’s autumn while its still summer. By mating their
sheep much earlier, farmers are causing lambs to be born
in the middle of the very worst winter weather.
Sheep which live on low-lying land in ordinary fields
in Britain usually give birth to their lambs in sheds.
The lambs are turned out into fields soon after birth,
whatever the weather. The farmers also give their ewes
fertility drugs to make them produce two or even three
lambs when they would naturally only produce one. This
causes problems because a sheep has only two teats (or
nipples). The ‘spare’ lambs are immediately
taken away from the mother and sent to market.
Bewildered, frightened and denied the tender care of
their mothers, these newborn lambs await their future
shivering in the cold. Prodded and poked by farmers to
see how fat they are, they are bought for just a few
pounds. Some are bought by fancy restaurant owners – but
if you can understand how someone can look at these bleating,
scared creatures and see them as ‘Today’s
special – baby lamb roast with garlic and rosemary,’ please
What farmers are working towards is to make sheep bear
three litters every two years. To do this they have to
distort the ewes’ natural instincts by controlling
them with hormone treatments. This is the start of factory
farming for sheep and before long you may not see so
many of them in the fields. Their home will be one big,
overcrowded, disgusting shed.
Sheep which live on higher ground, like the Pennine
hills or the Welsh mountains, live a much wilder, more
natural life. They aren’t manipulated in the same
way, but competition means that things are changing here
as well. Farmers are cramming more and more sheep on
to the hills, where there never was much grazing for
animals in the first place. To save money, they’re
cutting down on the number of shepherds employed to watch
over them, and cutting out the extra feed they used to
provide throughout the winter. Because fatty meat isn’t
popular anymore, farmers are also trying to get rid of
the layer of fat just below the sheep’s skin through
selective breeding. But this is, along with the extra
food, what helps the sheep keep warm when the icy winds
of winter howl.
Although more and more sheep are dying because of interference
like this, farmers are breeding larger and larger numbers,
and there are now nearly 45 million sheep in Britain
alone. Unfortunately, their future is not a happy one.
I visited my parents to help with lambing and I helped
deliver a baby lamb. It was beautiful. The nest day a
farmer brought us a leg of lamb and somehow it seemed
all wrong. I couldn’t reconcile what I’d
been doing all day – bringing life into the world,
just to heartlessly take it. I became a vegetarian.’
Jakki Brambles, first woman to host a daytime daily programme
on BBC Radio 1.