Farming is a big part of life on Ramsey and we manage a flock of Welsh Mountain sheep for conservation grazing purposes. Chough are one of the island's key management plan species. There are less than 400 pairs in the UK with over 50% of those in Wales; here on Ramsey we have 9 territorial pairs this year. They nest in sea caves and feed on soil invertebrates so short well grazed coastal grassland is their key habitats. Farming has sculpted Ramsey's landscape for generations giving rise to an open, short sward in the northern fields that chough (as well as wheatear) have thrived on. We keep a flock of Welsh Mountain ewes on the island year round limiting numbers in winter to around 100 animals. We then lamb from these to boost the number of grazing heads during the summer months when grass growth is at a peak. Before winter we sell the ram lambs and any older ewes, replacing them with young ewes from the current years crop. In addition to their grazing benefits the sheep dung also provides a valuable additional habitat for dung beetles - an important insect in its own right but also a key component of chough diet.
The 2016 lambing season started on 12th April and its been full on since then. Due to poor weather over winter we were unable to get them scanned this year. We need flat calm conditions to get the scanning machine across and we saw precious little of that last winter! So we have no way of knowing how many are expecting singles, twins or are empty. Not ideal but it makes it more interesting! Today saw our 100th lamb born, 33 sets of twins and the rest singles. There are about 20-30 left to lamb depending on how many are empty. The number of twins has taken us by surprise. Our ewes are Welsh Mountain (Glamorgan / Lleyn cross) while the rams are Cheviots. The breed is not prone to twins (with the exception of the Lleyn element in them) so they must have been in good condition following the mild and wet winter
We lamb them outside in three lambing fields. Once they are day or two old we turn the twins into two further 'maternity fields' where we can give them additional feed and turn the singles out onto the main island pasture. Its a busy time for staff. We have been up every day at 5am for the past 2 weeks with the last checks at 10pm. There have been the usual problematic deliveries to deal with. Incorrectly presented lambs cannot be delivered safely (or at all) so need our intervention. The correct position is front feet forward so you see the front hooves plus nose appear first.We've had hung lambs (both legs back), one leg back, tangled twins, upside down, backwards births and breeches. Some can be rectified quite quickly but others mean the lamb needs pushing back into the ewe so the necessary rearrangements can be made out of the constricted space of the birth canal. Once out of sight it is all done by feel alone. Lisa has the smallest hands so this job falls to her! Most interventions are successful but inevitably a few lambs have died (not many so far, only three). However we are pleased to say that no ewe has ended up without a lamb. Raising twins is obviously more challenging so when the opportunity arises we 'kidnap' one (usually from a smaller ewe who looks like she might struggle) and try and adopt it to the ewe who has lost a lamb. It sounds gruesome but the most effective way to do this (in our experience) is to skin the dead lamb and put the coat on the adopted lamb like a coat. If all goes to plan the ewe thinks it is her own lamb and hopefully accepts it. The coat only needs to stay on for 24-36 hours and good thing too as by then it is starting to stink! So despite the loss of a lamb, 2 ewes have now ended up with a lamb each. I hate seeing a ewe with no lamb. She wanders around shouting, tries to steal other lambs and more importantly is at risk of mastitis as her bulging teats are full of milk with nothing to relieve the pressure
Here I am with a couple we needed to deliver ourselves yesterday. The lamb on the right was very big and was stuck with one leg hooked back in the birth canal. By contrast its twin (on the left) was tiny and fired out while I was still getting the first to breath properly! The small twin is very feisty and seems to know it has competition!
Lamb wearing a skinned 'jacket' from a dead lamb - the ewe successfully adopted this one as its own
Lisa with two freshly pulled lambs where her small hands definitely came in useful!
New Ramsey intern Sarah has been a huge help and taken to lambing like a natural!
Its not only myself, Lisa and Sarah who are busy. We get a lot of help from our parents including taking over the kitchen and cooking all our meals for us! No good setting a 'dinner time' as we could roll in any hour depending on what is going on. But the hardest worker of all is Dewi our Border Collie. We trained him from a pup and he is now 7 years old and at his peak. Because we lamb outside we need to move sheep around different fields. Lambs just a few days old can run very fast but Dewi is very good at gently moving them and his quick, sharp moves means we can move them slowly and carefully. If any break away we would be left for dead but Dewi covers the ground in no time at all and heads off any escapees. If ewes are in difficulty giving birth we need to catch them. Dewi is very good at cornering them for us and standing them up until we can get to them. He is up and bouncing about at 5am when I come down the stairs eager to go again and even if he is flaked out in front of the fire in the evening he still jumps up when he hears us putting on our boots for the last light look round. We simply could not do it without him. Below is a short video of him moving a ewe plus twins
Farming and conservation can, and should, go hand in hand and it is one of the most rewarding aspects of our jobs. 10 years ago we didn't have a clue but thanks to careful and patient training by local farmer Derek Rees we can now do it all on our own (well nearly all!) Derek is always on the other end of the phone to offer advice or to shoot over in his boat at a moment's notice. We've only had to call him out once this year (so far!) for a ewe that had prolapsed. A massive thank you is due to Derek for the way he has taught us. We would aso like to say thank you to the local farming community for helping us out over the years, in particular the lovely folk at Treginnis Cottages and Treginnis Farm School, our nearest neighbours.
Watch this space for more updates!
Our 2016 Reserve Intern Sarah Parmor arrived for the season in late March and has hit the ground running! Sarah takes up the story of her first 2 weeks.......
Ramsey opened to visitors slightly earlier than usual this year due to the early Easter weekend so I arrived on Good Friday to start my internship as reserve assistant. The weather and hence boats can be unpredictable this time of the year and as it happened we didn’t have boats or visitors for nearly a week after that. This was probably for the best as it gave me a week to get used to what my role would be and adjust to island life. Lisa and Greg have been very welcoming (and definitely patient) with me as I settle in.
The reason I had wanted to do this internship so much was because it offered such a variety of experiences – field and survey work, visitor engagement, developing practical skills and coordinating volunteers. Throw in some social media and lambing and I think I will have covered all bases.
By the end of the first week I already had my own breeding bird survey section of the island to record, started monitoring Chough nest sights, prepared the fields and farm buildings ready for lambing, given introductory visitor talks…and very importantly learnt to drive the quad bike!
I had actually acquired my atv (quad bike) licence a few weeks ago but hadn’t had time to get much practice. Driving a quad bike + trailer is relatively easy to learn but reversing with a trailer is a totally different matter. Luckily, we had a quiet afternoon one day and Lisa kindly left me in a field to practice. After a frustrating hour or so (and fortunately with no damage to vehicle or trailer) I managed to reverse them – relatively neatly- into the quad bike shed…I would call that success!
After a week living on my own at the volunteer's bungalow, our first short term volunteers of the season arrived. Mike and Kathy, both keen local birders, have been amazing and got stuck into some great jobs as well as helping with our visitors. We've had particular success (Greg liked it to a production line) making Manx Shearwater nest boxes and started digging them into their plots already. There are an increasing number of Manx Shearwater breeding in deep underground burrows on Ramsey and we closely monitor and ring many of these birds. If they use these nest boxes they are much easier to access. We will just have to wait and see for another month or so if it has worked!
So all in all I've had a great start to my six month internship and also have so much to learn and look forward to over the coming months. Seabird counting, Manx Shearwater census, Grey seal pup monitoring not to mention welcoming all the lovely visitors that come over to the island throughout the year….and just as I write this our first lambs are being born and are just so adorable- I don’t think I’ll ever want to leave!
After a bleak day of severe gale force south easterlies yesterday the wind eased today and with a continued light easterly air flow the island found itself dripping with migrants. The highlights were a female marsh harrier (found by visiting Yelkouan shearwater researcher Dilek Sahin), a stunning male black redstart (found by volunteer Kathy) and, argubaly bird of the day...a rook! (found by me....or maybe Lisa, we both saw it at the same time!)
Other totals on an impressive day were 122 chiffchaff, 39 willow warbler, 9 goldcrest, 24 blackcap, 2 common redstart (male and female), a common sandpiper, 2 collared dove, 13 sand martin, 35 swallows, 2 merlin (male and female) - with thanks to volunteers Mike and Kathy for the bulk of those records
Wheatears were everywhere. Good numbers of our breeding birds are back on territory but they were clearly joined by waves of new arrivals today with parties of 20+ seen dropping out of the sky at times to feed on our invertebrate rich acid grassland
One of many willow warblers around the island today....there were even more chiffchaffs!