Outdoor lambing in Northern Norway has worked our very well with our Viking sheep. We keep the birthing sheep in pens in the forest so the lambs are born in ‘natural’ surroundings but with protection from predators. Because of this they need food several times a day as they eat in their pens. This might be a hassle for some but we like to keep a regular eye on all our sheep. The other sheep that aren’t birthing this year, and the rams, are free to roam the forest. They visit the ewes, especially during feeding time, and then wonder off to forage for more food.
We find outside lambing is a cleaner option than in the barn. We use the trees to set up dividers (Farfar planted a pine forest with trees equally apart so it makes it easy to use them as posts). We tie dividers to the trees making the first pen and then we expand out as needed. When we think a ewe is going to give birth in a day or so we make a cosy pen for her to rest up before the day.
We have to work with the weather when the sheep lamb outside. Each pen has a tarp roof and straw bed (though our sheep like to eat the straw, so we refresh regularly). We use old paper bags as wind breakers and which provide extra warmth. We check the forecast every day and if it is going to be cold (below freezing) then we refill on straw. The last two years there has been snow on the ground when the first lambs came, however under the pine trees there is only a thin layer of snow and it gets melted away by the ewes laying on it. Our pen area is also on a slight hill so we don’t get puddles. The ewes like to eat the pine branches too – minty.
Sheep prefer to give birth in solitude. Naturally they find a secluded spot that is dark and protected from wind. We try to give our sheep a cave type environment and they seem to like this very much. They prefer triangle shaped pens because they like to have their behinds snug between two boards. It makes them feel safe when lambing.
Because we feed the sheep small amounts of silage several times a day there is little waste or build up in the pens. The sheep get a lot of their water from the silage but we give them small buckets of water. 500mls of water a day is more than enough for them. When we are finished with the pens we take the board away and just rake out the compact bedding to become compost for our forest.
The new born lambs are very hardy and built to handle the Norwegian climate. They are born with wool and the mother licks them dry. They stand up within a couple of minutes of being born and then look for the mother’s teats. Viking sheep are very good mothers, however, this year we have had two ewes that weren’t too keen on being mothers. Sometimes ewes reject their lambs and buck them. It might be because the lamb has the wrong smell, the lamb is sick, there are triplets or just that the ewe is not the mothering kind. Our two ewes didn’t go out of their way to hurt their lambs, they just weren’t interested in them. So now we have to bottle feed the new lambs six times a day with a special lamb formula. The formula smells very sweet and creamy, I am so tempted to have a try. We have kept our bottle fed lambs in the pens with their mother’s so they can socialise but it is natural for the lambs to get attached to us because we give them food.
When the last lamb born is a week old we release the sheep. It is called vårslipp in Norwegian and literally means ‘spring release’. For the first two hours it is sheepy madness. Mothers and babies all get mixed up and start bleating for each other.
When they sort themselves out they start grazing again and the lambs get confident enough to play. This is the first year we have had male lambs (last year we had all females – very flukey). I certainly didn’t expect the two week old males to be humping their sisters already but it is just play.
We watch the sheep very carefully during this time. Sometimes the ewes become too distant from their lambs. They are either too happy about the new food sorce or get caught up with sheepy things like scratching themselves on trees.
So they don’t forget about their lambs or reject them, we sometimes have to force them to remember each other. The best way to do this is to hold the mother so the lamb can feed from her. It reignites the bond.
This time of year spring buds are just starting to come out so the landscape is still brown and bare. As you can see from the pictures, the sheep and lambs are a perfect mix to blend into their environment during this season. This year we have bred in some brown and yellow into our flock. We like the look of a golden upper fleece, a brown belly and black legs. Viking sheep don’t have a standard colour or look, the breed is known to be diverse with colour but also curly wool or straight, short hair on the head or fuzz, horns or no horns.
Our two rams, Pappa Ramone and Grandpa Ramstein watched their extended flock. Rams are much more affectionate than ewes who generally keep a distance unless they suspect you have food. We are glad to have several lamb-rams this season so we can continue our natural breeding and also have meat for the autumn. Many farmers would say that having rams in uneconomical but we find they are very beneficial to the flock – they are no good for meat after they have come of age because they don’t taste as good. We don’t think it is necessary to cull rams if the flock is healthy and well balanced and the rams well adjusted. We are thinking of keeping at least two more to run with our flock.
We trust Ramstein even with our children but with all animals we never keep our eyes off the rams or our children when they are together. Ramstein has never shown any aggression towards us. He gets playful sometimes, puts his butt in our way because he wants a scratch. Sometimes he backs up and trots to us but even then he only gently taps us with his horns.