Peter Ross: Rite of spring

TO farmer Bert Leitch, Mull’s lambing season is a matter of life and death – and pride, even after 40 years

TO farmer Bert Leitch, Mull’s lambing season is a matter of life and death – and pride, even after 40 years

BERT Leitch, a sheep farmer on Mull, loosens the flaps of his deerstalker cap and ties them under his chin. “Right,” he says, bending once more into the wind, “let’s ca’ on.”

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This simple phrase, often on his lips, expresses so much about the man and his way of life. It speaks of the urgency of the lambing season; the thrawnness necessary for the job; the eternal, cyclical nature of the work. Leitch is 71. A Fifer, this is his 40th year on Mull, his 40th lambing on the island, though he has worked with sheep since 1956. Under his watch, many thousands have been born. He has, too, seen many die. Those lost during their births, others lost to the crows and snows, avian predators and climate being pitiless killers of lambs. Shepherding is life and death in the raw. A calling not a career.

“If your sole aim in life is to make money, you would never entertain the likes of this,” he says. “Never. The time you put in, and the return you get, and the disappointments you get, you’d be daft or damn near it.”

Leitch is a short, stout man with grave blue eyes which, like the rest of him, are always on the move. He leans on a crook as he walks the hills of his 2,000-acre farm, snagging lambs in a quick sweeping motion with the curved horn handle. He is accompanied at all times by a dog. Today it’s the turn of Cap, an amiable, keen, lushly-coated Collie. When Leitch wants to attend to a particular sheep he sends the dog to round it up, barking sharp, gruff commands – “Away to me!” meaning go right, or “Come by!” meaning go left – in a voice that expresses his absolute dominion.

The lambing season, on Oskamull farm, began just after mid-April and will go on until towards the end of May. Leitch has 450 Blackface ewes – he pronounces the word in the traditional Scots way as “yowe” – and the vast majority will lamb during this period. Most will have just one lamb each year. They orbit the hill, each ewe and lamb, like a planet and its moon.

Male or “wether” lambs are sold for meat at about five to six months old, and the top price Leitch got in Oban last year was around £30 per animal. The market for lamb has picked up considerably over the past three years following a long period of decline. Showing “richt smart lambs” in the sale-ring and being paid well for his effort gives Leitch a buzz. But there are also huge costs, especially as he lives on an island; the rising price of fuel, especially, smoulders away at the margins. The best of his new ewes he will keep for breeding.

Leitch’s hands are rough, red and blunt, yet deft and sensitive enough to reach inside a ewe then identify and rearrange the head and limbs of a lamb presenting in the wrong position; “guddle aboot till you find a leg,” is how he describes this procedure. He makes quick work of lambing. It’s over in less than a minute, the animal sliding wet and yellow from its mother. He wipes the mucus membrane away from its nose and mouth, and presses the ewe’s face towards its lamb – “C’mon, girl” – in the hope of encouraging bonding. He also squeezes the ewe’s teats till milk begins to emerge.

There’s a sort of rough tenderness, a gentle decisiveness to his actions. He is breeding and raising these animals in order to profit from their eventual death, yet he has a kind of instinctive affinity with them, an understanding or “kenning” as he puts it.

He is regarded within Scottish farming as “a sage-like figure” full of sheepy wisdom. He is a modest, plain-spoken man, always keen to deflect praise, but it becomes clear very quickly, when spending time with him on the hill, that he has his own country philosophy. There is an unwritten Tao Of Bert collated from his own stoic experiences – “You aye lose a puckle beasts at lambing” – and the gnomic aphorisms of other shepherds: “This yowe hasnae enough milk to grease the hinge of a spectacle.”

It is half-past six in the morning when I walk out with Leitch to the lambs. His land is rough, rocky and steep; pasture pocked with clumps of brittle heather and new bracken emerging in crook-like fronds. There can be few sheep in Britain with a better view. Ben More is an ancient kingly presence wearing an onyx crown of cloud. To the west, Staffa and Iona are warm with sunshine, pearls on the tide. Leitch has a strong empathetic sense of those who walked these hills before him, pointing out the abandoned village of Corkamull which lost much of its population during the Clearances to make way for sheep farming. It is a rickle of stones.

Leitch walks his land every day during the lambing season, examining every gully, hollow and ridge. Most of the ewes will lamb quite naturally and without problems. The fear, though, is that he might miss a ewe having difficulties by simply not seeing it. But no matter how good his vantage point, he can never achieve a perspective superior to the hooded crows, his sworn foes, for whom lambing season is an annual feast. “Those beggars there,” he says, pointing at the birds with his crook, “they’ll watch for a yowe lambing and then take the tongue of the lamb if they can. And if the yowe cowps they’ll take her eyes.”

Hoodies are not the only predator, though they are the most numerous. Leitch says he also loses lambs to ravens and sea eagles. This last point is controversial as the white-tailed sea eagles, Britain’s largest bird of prey, were once extinct in this country, but, having been reintroduced, are now an important tourist draw for Mull. “The RSPB will tell you they only eat dead or sickly lambs, but that’s nonsense,” says Leitch. “A sleeping lamb – that’s just convenience food for a sea eagle.” They are protected by law and Leitch therefore cannot shoot them. “But it comes very close to it sometimes.”

It’s intensely cold on the hill in a strong wind, but a mercy that it’s dry. Wet weather is the worst, even worse than snow. It seems to wear the sheep down. And when the burns are in spate, it’s common for lambs to drown while trying to follow their mothers across water too fast and deep. “Bloody sheep,” says Leitch. “They can find lots of ways tae dee.”

In the byre, in a pen beside its mother, there is a dead lamb. It was “hung”, meaning it started emerging from the ewe head-first with its legs tucked back behind and became stuck. Leitch was too late getting to it. “You curse yourself. You think ‘What the hell did I miss that for?’ But you cannae be everywhere at the one time.”

So he has a dead lamb. He also has a live lamb without a mother. To fix these two problems, Leitch performs a “twinning”. He lifts the limp damp corpse from beside the keening ewe, lies it on a rusty oil drum and with a small knife removes its head and front legs. He cuts into the abdomen and rubs blood on the head of the live lamb, which bleats a little at this indignity. He then skins the lamb, and holding the live one between his knees, pulls the gory fleece over its head as if it were a new jumper. He puts the lamb in the pen beside the ewe. She sniffs this newcomer. She licks the blood. She seems to accept that the lamb is hers and suffers it to drink her milk.

“It’s keen to sook,” the farmer says with quiet satisfaction, “and her mothering instinct’s strong. There’s no going to be a problem with this yin.”

Of such small miracles, a lambing season is made. Of traditions and rituals. To see Leitch twinning the lamb is to see an old, old skill, a thing handed down. It is not just a lifetime’s experience but the experiences of several lifetimes. Leitch learned how to do this in the 1950s from “auld Sandy Lean”, a shepherd in Fife, but who knows who Lean got it from, and who before him? Lambing is said to be worth more than £600 million annually to the UK economy, but its true value, I believe, is as a trove of these practical yet in some ways rather mystical skills, and as a means of keeping people in these remote areas, working the land and raising families of their own.

Leitch and his wife Chris brought up three children here. His granddaughters – Eilidh, five, and Kate, three – are delighted, at this time of year, to have the opportunity to bottle-feed orphan lambs. Though Leitch is now in his seventies and has suffered health scares in recent years, he has no thoughts of retiring – “Whit wid ah dae?” He has seen too many men go into decline when they stop work.

Rather, he will continue to walk the hills, in the sleet and smirr and the snell wind, past the abandoned crofts and tumbledown dykes, all those old ghosts, with the smell of smoke and blood and dung and the sea in his nostrils. He will walk and work because stopping is not in his nature. “Right,” he says, “let’s ca’ on.” And we do.