For worshippers at one Weardale church, an annual lambing service is just as important as the harvest celebrations.

Westgate lies towards the top of Weardale, once the western extreme of the Bishop of Durham's deer park but now a place of which it may probably be said that there are rather more sheep than people. More lambs, this time of year, an' all.

Precious few seemed in evidence last Sunday, probably having decided to watch with mother given the wretchedness of the weather and the doleful accuracy of the forecast, though one loony lamb insisted upon straddling the road on the approach over Bollihope Common and may have accompanied mint sauce rather sooner than had been anticipated.

Westgate, for all that, has optimistically large Methodist and Anglican churches, the former affectionately remembered for its magnificent Easter Sunday breakfasts.

There's also a two-storey hall, a small Co-op, a pub, a caravan park - Weardale has dozens - and, inevitably, an "exclusive development". (Every village should have one.)

It was to the mid-Victorian church of St Andrew, across the cattle grid and up the steep and rugged, that we headed for the annual lambing service - about 50 people, an amiable sheep dog called Gyp ("house-bred," they said) and a four-day-old lamb, known only as No 164.

"It might have stopped fine for us," someone grumbled. Sheep might fly, as well.

It wouldn't be hard, of course, to build a service around ovine imagery. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations offers 11 biblical references to lambs and 13 to sheep, Longman's Guide to Biblical Quotations has ten to lambs but only six to sheep.

Thus it was that we sang Loving Shepherd and The God of Love My Shepherd Is, heard readings from the tenth chapter of St John ("He that entereth not by the door of the sheepfold but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber") and from the 65th Psalm.

The pastures are filled with flocks, the hillsides are full of joy;

The fields are covered with sheep, the valleys are full of wheat;

Everything shouts and sings for joy.

Whoever wrote Psalm 65 had never had Defra to contend with, or what apparently is known as the single budget payment.

Elsie Fairless, 52 years on the Church Council and 36 as warden, said over the subsequent bun fight that it had been a bad winter for the sheep men.

The payments were late, the frost wasn't. They'd been forced to take out bank loans to get by.

Elsie had spent almost all her life in Westgate, remembered when there was a Sunday school, looked forward to the lambing service. "These are country places, it's what we're about. People still come up the dale, just to look at the lambs."

A few of them work all year round, she said, to ensure that St Andrew's survived. "We have coffee mornings, sales of work, all sorts. There's no Sunday School now, but you can't expect that when the vicar has seven churches. We're just glad to have a service every week."

Rob Brown, the curate, offered thanks for "the gift of new life on the farms and fells around Westgate" and for lambs and calves safely delivered. Philip Greenhalgh, vicar of Westgate and of those other six country churches, talked of how hard Weardale's farmers and shepherds worked and of their fruit in abundance.

Mr Greenhalgh - hirsute, artistic, hugely popular - also read a James Johnson poem about the Creation which would have made the average Emanuel College look like liberal theologians ("God smiled and the rainbow appeared") and talked of his three hens down at the Rectory in Stanhope.

Two lay almost every day, the little banty hadn't bothered herself for four years. "I have decided that she is an adviser, in fact an eggspert," he said.

"You will find in many walks of life, like education and government, that there are people who don't do anything but who are paid twice as much as those who do just to tell them how to do it. They are advisers, too."

No wonder they like him. "He's a real good parson, preaches some wonderful sermons usually without notes and understands wild life and the balance of nature," said Alec Peart, a sheep farmer. "To us, the lambing service in May is just as important as harvest in October.".

Alec also reckoned that lambs could not only recognise different tractors but tractors of the same make. "They know it means food, like children and sweets."

No 164, affectionately cradled by John Graham and reckoned just four days old, bleated only briefly. Dog, lamb and a fleece were duly blessed.

Though everyone thought the lamb gorgeous, a little girl - babes and sucklings - asked if it would grow up into a sheep, or die before the summer was out. John hesitated only briefly. "I expect this little chap will grow up," he said.

Mr Greenhalgh in his final, Celtic, prayer had asked that the blessing of the rain gods might be upon us.

No worry about that one being heard; the village hall is just 200 yards away and we were soaked before the salad sandwiches.