SHEEP are supposed to outnumber people in Scotland but right now they are proving frustratingly elusive.

Here on the uplands of South Lanarkshire, the lambing season has been underway for days but on the morning after Easter Monday, a thick carpet of snow has obliterated all traces of spring, and we search in vain for signs of ovine life.

This week, The Scottish Farmer reported that the harsh winter had taken a grim toll on the nation’s farmstock, and that every day for the past week, one Cumbernauld knackery had recovered 50 tonnes of dead sheep from fields and ditches.

Gloomy predictions that a thaw might reveal further carnage make the silence of the lambs across this sheep-farming territory in Drumclog, near Strathaven, seem ominous. But at last, a huddle of ivory-coloured fleece comes into view and a snow-covered sign is cleared to reveal the name of Back Hareshaw Farm.

Inside the lambing shed, ewes and newborn lambs are in fine bleat, almost smothering the soft, Cumbrian lilt of farmer Alfred Kendall, who is crouching over the tail-end of a labouring ewe, talking me through the birth. Some 13 lambs were born here last night, he says, but that one in the corner was rejected by its mother. Since this ewe is only having one lamb, Kendall plans to fool her into thinking she’s had twins.

It’s called a “wet adoption”, and Kendell smears the orphan lamb with the ewe’s birth fluids before easing out two small hooves, legs and a creamy nose. Andrew McKerrell, who is holding the mother gently by the head, confirms she is doing fine, and the sheep seems remarkably calm even when her offspring has wriggled into the world and Kendall re-inserts his hand to extract more fluid. “Andrew was taught at college that if you put your hand in, it thinks it’s given birth again.” That’s certainly the theory, agrees McKerrell, 22, and – duped or not – the ewe is soon nuzzling both tiny bundles.

McKerrell is one of two work experience students here as part of the National Sheep Association’s (NSA) Next Generation lambing scheme, which aims to support farmers during an intensive period of their calendar while offering the kind of work experience those not raised on farms can struggle to find.

In another shed, Juliette Carroll, 24, is bottle-feeding lambs. “If the ewe doesn’t have enough milk or for any reason they can’t find the teat, we give them some extra,” explains Carroll, who is working here to gain livestock experience before entering veterinary studies. “This little one does seem a bit hungry,” she says, indicating a lacklustre-looking creature. “See how its belly isn’t bloated?”

Lambs that don’t feed “can get hypothermia and go downhill very fast”, says Kendall, and in a shed that’s open on one side to the elements, there is more shivering than gambolling going on. Some newborns are lying on their mothers’ backs for warmth. Others are wearing orange plastic jackets and in one pen, Kendall shows me a tiny mite wearing a different kind of coat. Three mornings ago, its adoptive mother gave birth outside in the middle of a hard frost that killed her lamb. Kendall skinned the lamb and put the pelt on this orphan so the ewe would think it was hers.

Mother and adopted child have clearly bonded well, but at the tail-end of the most punishing winter many farmers can remember, with uncertainty over Brexit hanging over the future, heart-warming stories are thin on the ground.

NSA Scotland chair John Fyall, who farms cheviots in Aberdeenshire, says that while he has lambed through difficult seasons, “I can’t remember a time when we’ve had so much attrition. It’s been wet since September, when trading conditions were bad and a lot of farmers went into the winter with not a lot of money and stock that wasn’t in great condition. Fodder prices have been high, when it hasn’t been wet it’s been snowing and on the lower-lying areas, there’s still a lot of ground to be ploughed.”

Farming is a tough life. The accident rate is six times higher than the construction or oil industries, the rate of mental health problems and suicide is atrocious and a Scottish Government IT system debacle has led to delays in farmers getting EU subsidies. Why would anyone want to go into the industry?

Andrew McKerrell, now enjoying a break in the Back Hareshaw kitchen, wasn’t brought up on a farm and he knows it’s a hard life that won’t make him wealthy. (According to John Fyall, farming’s long-hours culture means many earn well below the minimum wage). But it’s the only thing he wants to do. Living in Crosshouse, East Ayrshire, he discovered you need experience to get into agricultural college, and took a summer job on an Aberdeen sheep farm. Halfway through his first year, he applied through the NSA lambing list for work experience with Alfred Kendall. He’s never looked back and now, with HNC qualifications in both animal care and agriculture, he rents six acres in Crosshouse and is building up his own pedigree flock, many of which are being lambed here in Kendall’s sheds.

“The first lamb was born small,” he says, “and I worried that maybe I hadn’t been feeding them right. But the rest have been fine and healthy. The newborns have brought my stock to around 50, so my next problem is finding more land to keep them on.” Is there support available? “Potentially, but it’s difficult,” he says. “To be eligible for the [Scottish Rural Development Programme’s] New Entrant scheme, you need to own between three and 30 acres of land, and owning land isn’t an option for someone like me coming into farming.”

One day, McKerrell hopes to own a small farm but with a student loan to pay and little ready cash, his immediate priority is simply to buy a small trailer. “Right now I have to ask Alfred to help me move sheep around. Working here is really helpful, because if ever I have a problem, Alf is the first person I phone to double-check. I’ve learned a lot from him.”

“It is hard for young people coming into farming. That’s why I help Andrew,” says Kendall, who clearly thrives in the role of mentor. He grew up in Cumbria on his parents’ 41-acre farm and from the day he left school aged 16, he worked in agricultural jobs, getting up at 6am to muck out and feed his employer’s herd before starting work on the family farm at 9am, always dreaming that one day, he’d own his own “big farm”.

That ambition was realised 14 years ago when the family bought Back Hareshaw’s 400 acres. Since Kendall’s father died eight years ago and his mother passed away last year, he’s had sole charge of his 400 sheep and 30 cows. The friendships he has made through the NSA’s lambing scheme are clearly important to him and Kendall talks proudly of the progress made by the young people he has mentored over the years, who still visit and phone after going on to forge successful agricultural careers in places as far apart as south west England and New Zealand.

Kendall walks with a pronounced limp, having broken a hip five years ago while trying to catch a sheep. He then broke the other one last February when he fell off a tractor. He caught pneumonia last winter, and he can see a day coming when he’d like to work less. His new cowshed, which he quips cost more than a house in Glasgow, was built using the rental from two wind turbines. He’d originally planned to reject the wind company’s offer, but now he’s been asked to accommodate two more, it occurs to him that this could be his retirement fund. Kendall knows people in their 90s who are still farming, and thinks “they should retire or do share farming between them and let the young ones come in”.

Back Hareshaw’s utilitarian farmhouse kitchen is not like the ones you see in country homes interiors magazines. An orphan lamb occupies a small cot beneath an infrared lamp, and there’s a big range cooker that once did service as a makeshift incubator. That was eight years ago during a bitterly cold spell when Kendall lost 70 lambs in one morning. “I’ve never seen a day like it,” he recalls. “It was windy, freezing, raining, snowing.” The ill-fated 10-day-old lambs had been turned out in the field, but after the weather changed suddenly they were found next to the fence, standing up but frozen to death.

For two days, Kendall battled to save the rest of his stock, turning out cows so pregnant ewes could be brought in and sheltering a dozen lambs in the house under infrared lamps. “I picked up one lamb and thought it was dead, then I saw a wee flicker in its ear and put it in the oven with the door open. This was 8am and it took till about 2pm before the lamb got alive.”

Yes, that spell in 2010 was severe. But the long, drawn-out winter of 2017/18 has been worse for lambing, not least because it followed a spell of wet weather that has continued since July.

“Lambing really begins in June, July,” explains Kendall. “And in 2017, that’s when the rain started. As luck would have it, the previous year I’d had a very good lambing time – I think I had around 500 lambs, the most I’ve ever had. Those sheep had worked hard producing two lambs each and though they weren’t in bad condition, they needed good grass to get more flesh on for the winter. But the rain meant the grass didn’t grow and I couldn’t make silage or hay so I’ve had to buy it in.”

With scans suggesting that a large proportion of his ewes are carrying single lambs, Kendall predicts this year’s yield will be around 250 – a 50% reduction on 2017. And despite using 10 tonnes more concentrated fodder than last year, he’s lost some sheep.

Kendall isn’t the only farmer bemoaning the winter of 2017/18. Jen Craig, 28, who works 40 miles from here at her family’s farm at Normangill, Crawford, is standing in a blizzard when I call her. Normangill’s lambing season isn’t yet underway, she says, but she knows many young farmers are already buckling under the strain following an atrocious 10 months of bad weather and economic difficulties. A former NSA Young Ambassador, Craig is keen to get a message out there that for anyone who’s struggling, that there are sources of support. “I would just say, we are all in the same boat. And it will hopefully get better eventually. We’re doing this for a reason, we love it, we want to do it.”

Not everyone loves sheep. There are lingering folk memories stretching back to the Highland Clearances, when the industry was imposed on vast swathes of the landscape at the expense of many people’s homes and livelihoods. More recently, environmentalist George Monbiot has described sheep farming as a “white plague” gobbling up subsidies as it chomps away at the fabric of the countryside, causing widespread erosion in places such as the landslip-prone brae above the Rest And Be Thankful. Writing in The Spectator in 2013, he added: “We pay billions to service a national obsession with sheep, in return for which the woolly maggots kindly trash the countryside.”

But whatever its environmental impact, the sheep farming industry is integral to the rural economy, employing around 13,000 of the country’s 67,000 agricultural workers. “I don’t want to have an industry dependent on subsidy,” says the NSA’s John Fyall “but there are parts of Scotland where we’ve got to accept that without it, there will be nobody left, no working rural communities.”

Though he didn’t vote for Brexit, Fyall thinks it’s time to focus on the “positives” and work out how farming is supported beyond 2022 – the point up to which UK environment secretary Michael Gove has promised subsidies will be protected. “Brexit gives us the opportunity to target subsidy at people who are doing things for the public,” says Fyall, “and I don’t think you can get more public good than nutritious food.” Politicians responsible for rural affairs have tended, he adds, to protect “those with the most to lose and not those with the most to offer. We are entering a period where there are a lot of young people with a lot to offer the industry, and it’s up to the public to recognise that and hopefully we can get a pricing and subsidy structure that rewards people who are actually producing food, providing benefit.”

He thinks the industry has to change. “Agriculture needs to become more professional and recognise that people need time. They say that in the olden days people worked harder, but back then you could only work as hard as the horse and when the horse stopped at night-time, you had to stop too. Now, you can keep your tractor going all night if you get a period of good weather.

“I don’t know how people with young families do it. It’s a great place to rear a family, in an environment where the kids can work with mum and dad outside and do healthy activities. But at the same time, I hope we are entering a period of agriculture where it’s going to reward people and allow them to lay down.”

Is he saying farming needs to become more of a job than a way of life? It’ll always be a way of life, he counters, adding that for all the anxiety and pressure associated with this point in the agricultural calendar, when the sun finally emerges, the sheep are turned out and the hill-lambings begin, spring is a good time to be a farmer.

“When the gorse breaks open and the air smells of coconuts, even when things are as tough as they are right now, there are moments when you find a wee warm spot to stop for a minute with the dog – and then it’s absolutely fantastic. A bit of warmth will see the grass peeping through and the lambs starting to grow … then folk will forget the bank balance, and how much silage they have to eke them through.”

At Back Hareshaw Farm, spring still feels very far away. But Alfred Kendall is thinking ahead. The agricultural show season is the highlight of his year, and he’s already looking forward to those warm days, when he’ll get into the ring with his prize sheep and perhaps boost an already impressive collection of cups and rosettes.

Right now, he has stock to feed, lambs to deliver, and he’ll be lucky if he sits down to dinner by 9pm this evening. But spring is coming. Any day now, the snow will melt, the flock will be turned out and the hills around here will reverberate with the vibrant bleating of 250 Back Hareshaw lambs.