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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Seasonal Miracle on the Farm - Feb 08

If you have greeted me on the street these past two weeks and I have stared right through you, I apologize. I’m in a state of suspended shock. I am still able to conduct business, drive a car, write a story…but my mind is a bit preoccupied. All I can think about is sheep.
I knew it would be a physically exhausting experience, but I didn’t realize how emotional it would be. The ewes mill about, enjoying their time in their steamy resort where the food and water is brought to them and they are treated to a handful of sweet corn twice a day. Then, suddenly, one of them will either lie down in the middle of the pen or put herself in a quiet corner, and her water will break. I usually come along when the lambs are already lying in the hay, being washed by their mother. In most cases, they were born in the last few hours before dawn and by the time I am introduced to them, they are already dry, fluffy and well-fed, ready for their close-up.
In some cases, however, the ewe behaves as though she isn’t willing to admit to the birth. “Who? Me? I have no idea where that came from. I didn’t do it.” These are probably the same idiot sheep that, during the mating season, kept right on eating while the ram went about his business. I imagine one of these sheep turned her head to her neighbour: “Martha, did you feel something? My goodness the mosquitoes are big on this farm.” These particular sheep are in complete denial of the whole process. They are probably the ones who will one day announce with glee that they are “going on vacation to the land of sweet corn and molasses!” when being loaded on the truck, headed for the sale barn.
Most of our sheep have very strong maternal instincts, thankfully. One proud mother of triplets watches my every move as I fill her water bucket and move about the barn, bringing hay. If I get too close to her lambs, she stares me in the eye and stamps a warning with her hoof. I tell her that she is “such a good mama”, and that her babies are beautiful.
The season started on a Sunday morning and continued with about two ewes a day, each one birthing an average of two lambs. I usually go straight to the barn after work, and one day Annie and I arrived to find a ewe calmly eating hay, with just the head of her lamb protruding. I panicked. “Ah! He isn’t breathing! His eyes are closed. I think he’s dead.”
Annie took a closer look: “He isn’t dead, Mom. He’s just stuck. You’re going to have to get in there.” IN there? In where? I left Annie sitting in the hay, talking to the ewe and I ran back toward the house, where my husband was just changing out of his university professor clothes and morphing into Farmer Fisher.
“Where are you going?” he asked, meeting me on his way out to the barn. “I think I have the wrong gloves on for this job,” I muttered. “There’s a lamb with only his head sticking out.” I must have looked wild with shock. Hair full of hay, flying about my head like the coiffure of a crazy woman. He put a calming hand on my shoulder and turned me around to face the barn. “Come on. Let’s go.”
My husband is amazing. He delivered the lamb by gently pushing the head back in and finding the feet. While looking around in there for the hooves, he found another lamb. “Oh. He’s got a brother.” Oh brother. I watched as the farmer gently maneuvered the lambs into position for birthing. The whole time, I couldn’t help thinking that his sleeves were getting awfully dirty and that I would have to wash that shirt the moment it came off him. Like I said. State of shock.
The ewe was haltered to the post for the event, and I put my arms around her neck. She leaned into me and made an almost human “hmmmm” as her offspring slid out one after the other and were placed on the dry bed of hay. We untied her and she quickly set to work, licking her babies dry and nickering a greeting to them. The one whose head was stuck has a slightly swollen noggin now, and we have named him Mr. Bighead as a result.
It isn’t the difficult births that distress me the most: it’s the ewes that are lacking in milk and/or any semblance of maternal instinct. There’s nothing worse than seeing an otherwise healthy little lamb failing because his mother has a hardened udder or hasn’t developed much of one at all. The farmer has milked a healthy wet ewe on her birthing day and fed the valuable colostrum to the “orphaned” lambs with a dropper. After getting that liquid gold, the weak lamb gets a burst of energy that is an amazing thing to witness. But that is just the beginning. These little fellows have to learn to steal from the other ewes in the pen in order to survive, and they run the risk of being butted aside once their identity is revealed with a sniff from the host ewe.
We have milk replacer and baby bottles for supplementary feedings, but these little guys need to feed often or they won’t make it through our cold winter nights. I hope these unlucky ones make it through the next six weeks, when they will finally be weaned and let out to graze on the new spring grass.

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