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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Living among the lambs

We’ve only been lambing full-on for a week and I’m exhausted already.
It’s a very different scene from last year. Now I understand why farmers are so obsessed with the weather. It seems as though “nature” is telling the ewes that the hay they have been eating (a bit moldy from the damp summer we had) for over a month is not nutritious enough to support more than one lamb each. So our multiple births (twins, triplets) are all pretty weak. We’ve lost a few lambs, and some of the mothers have insufficient milk. It can be pretty upsetting.
In order to boost the recovery of some of our lambs who were failing during that last brutal cold snap, I brought them into the farmhouse. They were dehydrated and in need of electrolytes. I mixed their medicine with a recipe for a corn-syrup solution that I found online.
Our small bathroom seemed an ideal place for the newborns to recuperate, as it is extremely warm in there. Of course, they made quite a mess after just one day in there, so we moved them to the basement. I knew when one of my infirmary patients had escaped the makeshift lambing pen when I heard the tap-tap of little hooves running across the concrete floor. We made the pen walls higher, put an old sheepskin rug over the edge of the boards, and they were content. We have a self-feeding milk bottle but they aren’t impressed with it. I’ve moved their feedings from every 4 to every 6 hours. Hopefully we can move them back into the barn soon.
Lambing is a lot of work – you have to feed and water the ewes twice a day, and do periodic checks for new births. When that happens, you have to try to find the new family a quiet corner to recover in. That can be a challenge, in an area that is already cramped. Our other biggest challenge is the freezing water hose. I’ve taken to bringing the hose in at night. Doesn’t do much for the décor but it saves valuable time at feedings.
I will walk around with big bags under my eyes for the next few weeks, but it’s all worth it. And it isn’t just the reward of holding a new lamb that brings me such joy. When the ewes are in their annual confinement, they are far different creatures from when they are wandering free in the pasture. It’s as though they know they need to depend on you, and that endears you to them.
Just as in the human population, we have various characters among the sheep. We have bullies. I tried to put an old Granny ewe (she’s probably about 75 in lamb years) in with a younger ewe who had ample room to share in her pen. Except she didn’t feel like sharing. There was more body-checking going on in that pen than at an Ottawa 67s game. I moved Granny to another pen, where the cellmate was significantly more accommodating.
We have teenaged moms, who were newborns themselves last year. These ewe-lambs often give birth and then pretend they didn’t do it. You have to supplement the feedings for those new lambs, as their mothers tend to be very non-maternal (they are more concerned about “when is the next corn snack coming?” than feeding their own babies).
Often the lambs will learn to steal milk from another ewe if their own mother has insufficient milk or maternal instincts. They learn very quickly that if they sneak under the ewe while she has her head in the hay feeder, she is much less likely to reel around and head-butt them. And they learn to dodge the kicks from the hind hooves. These are the lambs with street-sense, ala Oliver Twist and friends.
Then we have the earth mother who thinks all lambs are hers. They respond to every bleat, and try to lick the new babies in the next pen through the fencing. I hope we end up with a few more of this kind of ewe this year, so that we can group them with the mothers who are lacking in both milk and sense.
My favourite kind of ewe is the trusting (usually older and more experienced), placid ewe who allows you to climb into the pen and check her baby over while she calmly watches you from the corner. If you walk over to her pen and bring your face down to hers, she will come over and sniff you, nose-to-nose. This would never happen in the barnyard. It’s the security of the lambing room that changes them.
I learned lessons in my first lambing season in 2008 that have come in very handy so far this year, particularly when I have to climb into the pen of a nervous ewe. These are the mothers who freak out every time you come near them, putting their own lambs in danger of being trampled.
Last year, I was crouched in the corner of a pen with one of these lambs on my lap. I was feeding a bottle, as the lamb was a triplet and not getting enough milk. Soon I felt the warm breath of the ewe on my ear, and I turned to look at her (thinking I would tell her what a good mama she was). I was promptly head-butted, right between the eyes. That ewe nearly knocked me out. From now on, I never look a ewe in the eye when I’m in her pen. They have heads like concrete.


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