THERE is nothing quite so precious as new life, but none more so than that of newly-born lambs which are very special at this time of the year.
Along with the daffodils, they are a sign that Spring is coming and with their religious significance, a signal hopefully for a brighter future, even with the threat of the Iraqi war hanging over us.
Nestled in the downs at East Dean is a working sheep farm with probably the largest collection of different breeds in the world, including many which are no longer seen on modern farms.
The Seven Sisters Sheep Centre has no fewer than 47 distinct breeds, among them 130 Southdown sheep, a local breed which has become an endangered species, with only 1,500 females left in the country.
The centre was opened 15 years ago by Terry Wigmore, originally from Hampshire, who has been a shepherd for over 40 years and was formerly the livestock manager for the Gilbert Estate at East Dean. When it was decided to wind up the livestock side of the estate at that time Terry bought 120 of the sheep and set up his own business. Now the centre has 300 sheep, but importantly the 47 different breeds.
Last year it was voted the best family attraction in Sussex by the Good Britain Guide for 2002. Apart from the sheep there are lots of other animals for visitors to enjoy, including pigs, ducks, rabbits and horses.
The centre re-opened on Saturday after what was another hectic week on the farm amid the expectancy of new lambs being born. Lambing takes place from the first week in March through to the first week in May. T
The centre is then closed in May and June to allow for a welcome respite after the lambing season.
Opening times at weekends are from 11am to 5pm and these times also apply during the East Sussex school holidays. At other times the centre is open from 2pm to 5pm for the public, although school visits are arranged in the mornings when required, for educational purposes. There is also a mobile farm unit available to go to schools, open days and birthday parties.
Admission costs, which have not risen in the past five years, are: 3.25 for adults; 2.75 for senior citizens and 2.25 for children aged two to 15. Those under two are admitted free of charge. A family ticket, which covers two adults and two children, costs 10. There are also group discounts, with coaches welcome and facilities for the disabled.
Apart from seeing the animals, visitors can help with the lambs being fed by bottle. There is a special area for the weak lambs with infra red heaters to keep them warm, very much like a maternity unit for small babies.
And there are a few black sheep too. Not only are they occasionally born to pale sheep, but there are two pure black breeds on the farm — 15 St Kilda sheep and 4 Black Welsh Mountain sheep, which hopefully will breed more lambs this season.
Also there, with black and white spots, are the Jacob sheep.
There are sheep with brownish faces too, among them six of the Mule crossbreds. The brown Soay sheep, also to be seen on the farm, dates back 10,000 years to wild sheep in Asia.
Sheep were originally multi-coloured . It is only over the years neutral fleeces for wool grew in demand and paler breeds were introduced. During the 10th, 11th and 12th century Britain gained a lot of its wealth from sheep. The money earned helped to build churches and manor houses.
Even today, the Lord Chancellor still sits on a wool sack as a mark of respect for the importance of the early sheep industry.
To make a profit the centre needs to sell fleeces from each of the 300 or so sheep and for the ewes to have two lambs.
Most of the sheep only give birth to one lamb at a time, although the British milk sheep can have as many as five together.
The average sheep will give birth to 10 lambs in its lifetime. One of the sheep on the farm, Twiggy, who unfortunately died in April last year, became quite a celebrity on TV, giving birth to no fewer than 36 lambs. She had four sets of quins, three sets of quads, one set of triplets, and one single lamb.
Twiggy has a special burial place on the farm, but after April 30 farmers will not be allowed to bury them on their own land and will be charged 20 for them to be buried by agricultural officials, following the Foot and Mouth outbreak two years ago. Under the new regulations it will be more beneficial for Mr Wigmore to get a price for his flock at market than wait for the sheep to die.
The centre had to be closed for the whole season during the Foot and Mouth epidemic making the financial aspect difficult. Its viability is very much dependent on visitor numbers, which average 20,000 a year.
Visitors can also sponsor a sheep, paying 30 for the first year, and 25 each year after that.
Good fleeces only fetch 1 each — although two jumpers can be made out of one — and have to be sold to the British Wool Board. Some of them are sold for as little as 5p to provide Thermafleece insulation for roofs and walls.
Shearing takes place in the warmer months of July and August. Visitors can watch this being done. It is one of the best times of the year for the centre.
Many families take a picnic and sit out in the fields in what is a perfect setting.
But there is no need to take your own food.
The Hay Rack Tearoom serves light refreshments during opening hours.
It is run by Terry's wife, Pam, who helps generally around the farm.
They are supported by 10 part-time workers, most of whom live in East Dean.
In the Wool Room one of them, Brian Streeter, occasionally gives demonstrations of rug making from string.
It takes 110 hours for a standard size rug to be made, which is some indication of the time taken for manufacturing and costs. Other visiting demonstrators show spinning and other crafts.
There is a good range of coloured fleeces available for home spinners too.
A main feature of the centre is the 17th century barn and there are flint walls built by soldiers returning from the Napoleonic wars.
The timbers for the barn came from ship wrecks off Birling Gap in that century.
They are the ribs of barges which brought coal from Wales to the South Coast area, and the roofing tiles came from slate which broke free from the shipping.
Part of the Gilbert Estate, on which the centre stands, was mentioned in the Domesday Book, so it has plenty of nostalgia.
There are items of interest displayed in the barn showing the agricultural heritage and history of sheep on the downs.
And outside you can ride on a tractor!
Visitors can look through into the cheese room from the barn to watch yoghurt and cheese being made from the sheep's milk. Dairy products are available for sale, with the milk retailing at 95p pint.
As you can add water to it, because it is so thick it is economical and is particularly suitable for people who are allergic to cow's milk.
There is also a gift shop which sells memorabilia with a sheep connection, like pencils, crockery and sweatshirts showing animals on them.
You are sure to feel at home at this tourist attraction. 'We'll be pleased to meet 'ewe' is the warm welcome that awaits you at the family-run farm, which is only one mile from Beachy Head or half a mile through East Dean on the Birling Gap road.