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A Threat of Snow

You should know, we Irish folk take the threat of snow very seriously.

Obsessed as we are with the weather, a forecast of snow is foreboding. It can incite the masses into a flurry of panicked shopping that ensures that those more laid back souls will have no hope of getting bread or milk at the local shops. This then will become a source of news in itself: not only is there ‘snow on the way’, but there is ‘not a sup of milk or a slice of bread to be had’ in the local town. And of course this conversation will inevitably devolve into concerns about how much flour and teabags are on hand, should the snow stick around for an extended period.

Those of you living in less hospitable climates farther North expect snow annually, some areas for months at a time. Systems are set up and ready: what we would think of as ‘contingency planning’ for cold weather is not even that. More, they are simply preparations for the snow season of the year. Snowploughs are deployed, winter wardrobes are liberated from months of hibernation, generators are tuned up and ready for the inevitable power outages. When the predictable plunging temperatures arrive there is no feigned surprise. Day to day activities continue, albeit with more layers of clothing.

I know in The States, that allowance is made in the school calendar for ‘snow days’ in areas affected, and I expect that the same is the case in many countries. Here in Ireland, we simply are not equipped to deal with this type of weather. Sometimes, it seems that at the first sight of a snowflake, the country comes screeching to an abrupt halt. About this time last year, a text came through from my son’s school to say they were closing as it had started to snow quite heavily. I dutifully went to collect Luke from school. As you can imagine, the kids were excited at the prospect of the heavily-falling snow and even more so because they were being sent home from school early. But, as is usually the case here, despite the sullen skies and those fat, fluffy flakes of snow it didn’t last. In fact, it had all melted by the time we made it home.

In Ireland our temperature does not swing as widely or as wildly as elsewhere. Deep winter will usually bring some overnight frosts but we are rarely subjected to temperatures dipping below freezing for more than a couple of days at a time. A number of years ago we had a highly unusual weather system hit us: an Easterly storm that brought bitter cold, snow and blizzard conditions. Her name was Emma, but she was quickly dubbed ‘The Beast from the East’ by the media and of course, the name caught on.

She had been forecast and for those that listened to the meteorologists, we had a few days to prepare. While an easterly wind is not unusual for where we are, it is typically dry. It is rare that it brings nasty weather. In any case, we put up tarps and made as many amendments to our sheds to keep the worst of it out. We were lambing at the time, so it meant that instead of merely keeping our expectant mums warm and dry, we had to consider new-borns too.

We recorded temperatures in the shed that year of -18⁰C (that’s about 0⁰F). It was a struggle to keep the water running as it would freeze in the pipes. It was painfully cold. We had at least three lambs born that died almost immediately due to the extreme cold. Because of the wind, the snow blew in through every crevice of the shed, covering everything in a downy layer of freshly fallen snow – beautiful and poetic no doubt, but it meant that everything got wet and sodden. Larger gaps caused drifts that were metres high.

Outside the shed, we had to dig through drifts of snow so that we could get from one shed to another. Vehicles got buried in snow and were immobile for days. We had to make sure to knock the snow down from the valleys in the roof so that they would not form ice dams. But those cold temperatures were an unexpected ally to us, because it meant that we could walk over the top of the drifts instead of trying to wade waist-deep through them.

Up on our hill, we could walk directly from one field to the next, over the hedges and lane because the snow was so deep. When the snow did start to melt, it pulled down lots of our fencing with it. In places, it stayed for weeks. It may have protected the grass from the biting cold, but it also shielded it from the rays of the sun that would allow it to grow when the temperatures arose. Coincidentally, that summer we suffered a horrible drought due to ridiculously high temperatures and much of our grass was scorched. We ended having to buy grains and concentrates all through those hot months, just to keep our animals alive. Water was hauled daily just to keep them hydrated. It was a long year.

Now, three years on, it is referred to as if it was a mythical event that we had somehow managed to live through. It seemed like the stars aligned to really challenge us in as many different ways as possible. Even now as I write this, it sends a shudder through me. It has become a cautionary tale.

So, for farmers harsh weather means something a little different. No snow days for us! It means that we need to be well prepared because, it all comes down to keeping our animals healthy, sheltered and warm.

We are currently about two weeks out from lambing. It seems that all of our ewes are getting rounder and more uncomfortable by the day. They groan as they lie down, fart loudly and generally look like they are ready for this whole gestation business to be over. At times they look like they are ready to burst at the seams or ‘pop’ if given an unexpected surprise. But they still eat with gusto – Lord knows where they put it all!

Though we are often portrayed as being heartless and uncaring, farmers are anything but. Our priority is to our animals and the past week has been a testament to that. When we got notice of Siberian winds and imminent snow, we made a plan to make sure that, if it comes, we’ll be as ready for it as we can. It have been sent on countless errands to get ‘supplies’. On Monday, I made a five hour round trip to county Tipperary to collect a specialised cloth tarp that keeps rain out but allows air to circulate. We have closed off lots of gaps that were exposed to the elements: items that were on our ‘to-do’ list and have now been scratched off. We have plenty of oats and soya for the sheep, negating the need to urgently go to the grain yard in the next forty-eight hours. Medicines are stocked up.

Much of what we have done in preparation seems to be more about us people than the sheep. Ultimately though, our aim is that despite inclement weather, it is business as usual for the sheep. We ensure that bedding and silage are easily accessible, that the yard is tidy (tripping and falling is avoidable after all) and I also have extra wood chips on hand, in case any areas get too wet. But really it all comes down to the sheep. We allow our ewes to eat silage ad lib, because it keeps them happiest and it means there is no ‘rush’ at mealtimes. Greedy mums can cause injury to themselves and others when feeding is done at specific times and there is crowding at the feeders, so we find that this is a less stressful approach.

At this critical stage, stress must be kept to a minimum for our sheep. Illness, trauma or any type of disquiet can cause them to abort, so ‘calm and gentle’ is our current modus operandi. We keep the sheep sheds as quiet as possible, but have a radio playing which helps to desensitise them to our being around. We keep the bedding clean and dry. They are being given some oats (for energy) and soya (which helps to bring on milk production) daily. At this stage they really are wiling away their days and letting the clock tick down to the birth of their lambs.

I look tentatively out the window to see that the snow that was forecast for us, another weather event, has indeed started to fall.

We have been making ready all week, and now it’s Showtime.


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