The Lake District is a breathtakingly beautiful mountain area with quaint cottages and endless stonewalls criss-crossing the country and: sheep. Hundreds of thousands of them. You may walk up a mountain for hours and fancy yourself in a long forgotten world. All of a sudden a sheep and her two lambs will materialise from behind a rock, take as much of a fright as the walker and swiftly get herself and her children out of harm’s way.
There are four sheep to a human being in the Lake District, more than two million overall. I wanted to know more about these sheep and talked to Chris, a local farmer. Farming in The Lakes almost always means livestock production. Some farmers have cattle, but most rear sheep. It is the one thing that is fairly profitable in this mountainous region. Yet, it wouldn’t be without the state throwing in substantial subsidies. Chris doesn’t beat about the bush: “Farming is a business just like any other. We’re in it to make money.”
The money is made with the lambs’ meat. The meat of an adult sheep will only yield half as much. And the rough wool of the weather-proof mountain sheep breeds is merely a by-product.
The tups live in small herds among themselves and with the ewes only for a few weeks in autumn, for what is called the tupping season. Five months and five days later, in spring, the ewe gives birth to one to four lambs. If she has more than two, the remaining lambs will be taken from her and given to a mother who only has one. This is made possible by rubbing the lamb with the birth fluid of the new mum.
The newborn lambs just about have time to get on their wobbly legs and drink the first milk. They are not a day old when, in many places, a tight rubber ring is placed around there little tails (cf. Farmers Weekly tail docking video). This controversial method is meant to prevent fly strike, amongst other things. Male lambs often have their testicles tied off with a rubber ring, too (cf. Farmers Weekly lamb castration video). This is supposed to make their handling easier later on. There is no pain treatment in either case. If the lamb is healthy, both tail and testicles will die off within a couple of weeks. If the lamb isn’t quite as robust, it might take longer and complications may occur. Both interventions are painful in any case.
Sheering, too, is a rough procedure (cf. sheep sheering in the Lake District video). It is hardly surprising sheep are so shy.
Once the lambs are five months old, they are separated from their mothers and finished (fattened). At six months of age or at the latest before their first birthday they are slaughtered, quite often after several hours of transport. Ewes will be slaughtered at around the age of six, mostly because of problems with their udder, feet or teeth. However, sheep can grow as old as fifteen or older. Whether they are killed as children, in the case of the lambs, or at the age of six, sheep therefore only reach a fraction of their natural life expectancy.
It may well be that sheep in the Lake District live a relatively decent life for as long as they are out on the fields and healthy. But, as is the case with all farm animals, their whole existence is orchestrated solely to serve the purpose attributed to them by man. That is, to be transformed from sentient beings into an anonymous products. Thus, when looking into the inquisitive faces of these sensitive animals, nothing can belie the fact that they are being treated as mere objects. And that the slaughterhouse is but an instant away.