Shoulder deep in a Scottish sheep farm

April 20, 2018

Not long after we arrived on the farm, freshly hired as ‘lambers,’ the farmer heard a sheep bleating in need. We rushed out from the farmhouse into the dark to take a look and there it was: a sheep with four legs, plus one extra leg dangling out from where a leg should not be. I watched in awe as the farmer jumped into the paddock, tackled the sheep and proceeded to reach in to, well, birth a brand new lamb. Surely, I thought, that was a one-time thing. There was no way I would be expected to do the same. Turns out I would do that and much more.

Six months before that I was back home in Hamilton, Ontario, after my first ever trip abroad teaching in South Korea. I was 19, and that trip forever changed me in one major, drastic way. Suddenly I had oodles of confidence and a driving need to travel again.

In my two short months in South Korea, I managed to deposit myself on the other side of the world where I didn’t know the language and join a teaching camp just north of Seoul. I went from breaking down in tears when I met my host family for the first time, totally overwhelmed by the prospect of the journey ahead of me, to figuring out how to blow through language barriers and teaching six-to-twelve-year-olds sports, art, music and drama. When it was all over, I was different. I knew myself; I knew a new culture; I felt alive. I booked a flight to Malaysia for a solo two-week trip with no hesitations and no tears. South Korea made me fearless.

But then, I had to go home, where I had this sudden feeling of being trapped. After all I had done, I couldn’t imagine being stagnant.

After all I had done, I couldn’t imagine being stagnant.

It was too late to register for my second year at university and, to be honest, the first year wasn’t that inspiring. I spent my days working at a photography store, checking the print quality of other people’s adventures each day and slowly going crazy. I knew I had to get the high back, the rush of trusting my instincts, launching myself in a foreign land with nothing but my wits and curiosity to guide me.

And so it was that I decided to buy a plane ticket to Scotland. I had recently fallen in love with the Scottish band Belle & Sebastian, and of course, I grew up loving the fantasy inherent in the British Isles: castles, moors, petticoats and on and on. The only prep work I did involved getting a six-month work visa and a one-way ticket to Glasgow.

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An old high school friend of mine came along. We landed and quickly made our way to Edinburgh to see the famous castle on volcanic rock. The pound sterling, at the time, was crushing our precious dollar and I knew I had to supplement my adventure in a matter of days or things might go bad, fast.

We were booking hostels mostly because of the price, but also to meet new people. Travellers from around the world suddenly became best friends and it wasn’t long before someone would pull out a guitar and we would all be singing along.

At the Princess Street East Backpackers Hostel, I was waiting for my friend in the lobby before we headed out for a day of walking around beautiful Old Town. I was leaning next to a bulletin board with job postings. Some were for bars, some were for tutoring, but one in particular caught my eye. It was handwritten in a cursive scrawl, barely legible, but the words ‘Lambers Needed’ stood out.

I wanted to work and live in a way that immersed me in the culture. I wanted real experiences. 

I was, just moments before, trying to solve my cash-flow problem. I knew I had about a week’s worth of funds left if I was careful. My worst fear was having to book a flight home days after I’d just started this adventure. I would feel like a failure. I wanted to work and live in a way that immersed me in the culture. I wanted real experiences. This sounded like it might be a good one.

I grew up in a city, so my only farm experiences were school trips to the petting zoo. Still, the ad was offering room and board, plus a healthy remuneration at the end. They were simply looking for two fit people. So I gave the number a call.

I’m not sure what worked, but I think I must have made up for my ignorance on what a lamber does with pure raw enthusiasm to try anything. The farmer took a chance, hired us over the phone, and soon we were on our way an hour south of Edinburgh to the Scottish Borders, a gentle, hilly land filled with legend and dotted with ruins. I was in love.

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It was March, but the wind was very much still blowing in from January. Pockets of wintry storms attacked the hillsides where, I would soon learn, hundreds of pregnant sheep huddled in barns. We arrived late in the evening to a home-cooked meal. We entered through the front door into a warm kitchen with an AGA oven along one wall. The massive, blue wood-burning oven had four compartments with doors, with one partially open. Inside there was a lamb. Not a lamb prepared for a meal, rather a live, white, downey lamb sleeping peacefully in one of the oven’s unused compartments. The farmer’s wife saw my surprise at the lamb’s seeming predicament. She assured me it was just warming up after getting a bit cold overnight in the hills. I felt relief knowing that wasn’t our dinner, but I was still a little worried since its coat was browning just slightly on one side.

Over supper, the farmer told us a bit about our tasks for the next couple of weeks. Where I was expecting a thick Scottish brogue, instead he spoke with a lilting English accent. He told us we would build little nurseries for the sheep and lambs. These nurseries were in a separate shed away from the main pens that the sheep were housed in, and moms and their new lambs would spend a few days in these before being sent out to the hills to graze. We would construct three walls, the fourth acting as a makeshift gate. When we were not building these pens, we would watch over the sheep all day and we would “assist if needed.” But he advised that the sheep weren’t due to give birth for another week or so, so we had time.

It was the ‘assist if needed’ that caught my attention. And I quickly learned what it meant that very night when we rushed up from our seats at the table and out to witness our first lamb birth.

The next day, our assignments began. My friend was tasked with watching over 250 sheep  housed in a barn on the farm. I was contracted out over the hill to a neighbouring farm of over 300 sheep. I had to quickly master driving an ATV, which I’d never done before, over rocky, hilly roads, but it became my daily commute and it was amazing. The 15-minute ride would take me through lichen- and lavender-covered hills. It was bumpy and sometimes I was on a rather severe angle where I quickly envisioned my imminent roll-over and probable demise. Some days the wind would pick up and the rain would pummel down, turn to snow and back to rain again. I was grateful for my borrowed wellies. Most of the time, however, I would just yell out of excitement into the wind.

The sheep in my care were neatly grazing and waiting to welcome the lambs when the time was right. I would simply walk among them and look for signs of distress, which usually involved a limb protruding out the back where it should not, or a sheep laying down and struggling a bit. At first, I thought every sign of birth was a sign of distress, but really most of the time the sheep knew what they were doing and didn’t need my assistance. Those that did were clearly struggling and pretty soon I was able to recognize the difference before it was too late.

About four days after I arrived, I had to take charge of a situation. When I came across my first sheep in need of assistance, I knew I had to be quick and implement what the farmer had taught me just days before. A long white leg was hanging out the sheep’s rear. When a lamb is born, like any four-legged mammal, the head and two front legs should come out first. In this case, this looked like the lamb was caught by either its head or shoulder. I grabbed a bottle of lubricant and a very long pink glove that went to my shoulder. The farmer said it’s simple once you isolate the sheep from the herd. But, sheep are sheep and they do not like to be alone, so half the time was spent chasing a sheep that was clearly not having a lot of fun. Once I cornered her, it was simply a matter of getting her down on her side, straddling her, lubricating my gloved hand and reaching in to find the head and two front legs. The idea is to position the head first and the two front legs, so that you can gently ease the lamb into the world. Yep, that’s a thing I know how to do now.

Once I got the hang of that process, things like twinning an orphaned lamb on to a sheep who has excess milk—by trussing the lamb’s legs and covering it in the new mom's placenta as she's giving birth to her own lamb—suddenly became very normal acts. I had to do that about four times.

Of course, there were times when things didn’t go as planned, like when I was trying to clear out a newborn lamb’s lungs by holding it upside down and swinging it back and forth only for it to slip out of my grasp and land across the barn. (It was fine, but I was horrified.) And then there were the orphaned lambs, who, for some reason or another, were rejected by their mom. In these cases, we would take the lamb away and feed it by bottle until we could twin it on to a sheep with plenty of milk. At one point I had about eight orphan lambs that would chase me, respond to my call and generally behave like an adorable bunch of puppies. I named one Gizmo.

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Each day was a mix of beauty, cold and fear. Sometimes, when it was quiet and the sheep were calm I would even experience a moment of boredom. I learned the legends of the area including the rumoured burial ground of Merlin where two rivers meet. I once saw the Aurora Borealis and another time hundreds of wild rabbits crossing the road at dusk.

I had done things that my imagination could never have fathomed back at home working in a photography store. 

I would end each day covered in bruises but grinning from ear to ear. After about seven weeks it was over, but it was as if I had always known what it was to be a lamber. The smell of the farm was now in my blood. I had done things that my imagination could never have fathomed back at home working in a photography store. We parted, richer in more ways than one, and headed to Ireland where a whole new adventure awaited, and where I would soon make another hostel my home for weeks in Galway.

It was so simple and unassuming, this posting on a hostel bulletin board, but it has left a permanent mark that has led to so many more adventures and changed the fundamentals of who I am. It turns out, when you say yes to even just the idea of adventure, even if you don’t know what exactly the adventure entails, it can come at you in the most surprising ways. It can also make for a great conversation starter in job interviews.

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