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Friday, April 15, 2011

Life and death on the farm: lambing season begins.

I headed out to the barn the other morning with lambs on my mind. The ewes are right on schedule for the season, and they’ve been patiently waiting in the barn for a couple of weeks now.
First I checked under and around the feeders in the yard. I don’t want anyone getting away with dropping a lamb and abandoning it. It’s happened before. Then I checked all corners in the barn, where the ewes who are still outside (awaiting haircuts) would most likely wander in to give birth. That isn’t the plan, of course (but farm animals laugh at human plans). The most pregnant-looking ewes have already been shorn and are inside, where it is dry and warm.
When I entered the lambing area, I noticed something odd. A ewe was lying on her side, and all her pen-mates were as far from her as possible, in the corner. I climbed in to see what I could do. Normally I would call the Farmer in at this point but he had already headed in to work for his last day of exams. I was on my own.
The ewe appeared to be very old. She had a very bony back and she was wearing the metal ear tag belonging to the first set of sheep the Farmer had bought about eleven years ago. She had probably provided over a dozen lambs over the years. I tucked a flannel rag under her cheek to make her more comfortable. Her eyes looked sad. Her breathing was shallow. I decided to roll her onto a blanket and pull her out of the pen so that she wouldn’t get trampled by the other sheep on their way to the feeder. Sometimes all we can do is make them comfortable in their last hours. I wasn’t even sure if she was pregnant. It’s sometimes difficult to tell, particularly with the old girls.
I wondered if she was dying of old age or if she had just toppled over and exhausted herself, as the pregnant ewes seem to be fond of doing. I rolled her up onto her elbows and there she sat, happily munching on a bowl of sweet feed. But still she couldn’t get up on her own. I scratched my head and decided to let the Farmer solve the mystery.
Just then I heard the unmistakable sound of a newborn lamb. “Baaaaaaaa”, obviously, but it sounded like he was saying, “Hel-lo!  I’m over here! Come see me!” And then another little wee voice joined him, in harmony. Twins. I climbed into the pen and greeted the one little lamb with a mottled black face, compliments of our new Suffolk ram, Steve. I found the second lamb tucked under the feeder. This one was tinier than our house kitten, Sheila. Finally, I noticed a third lamb, in between his siblings in size. He had his head in the corner and he didn’t appear to be strong enough to stand. We had triplets.
I found the mother right away. She was old, but very attentive. She knickered in response to their bleating and nibbled on their woolly coats to dry them. All three had been well looked after.
Often when multiples are born, one or more will be temporarily deprived of oxygen, leaving them a bit stupid upon entry into this world. These poor creatures are regularly found rooting around in corners and under feeders, in a feeble attempt to find their mother’s teat. They will only survive if we manage to get some of their mother’s colostrum into them. I’m no good at milking sheep. I tried, and the ewe was very patient, but I only got a few drops. We had to wait for the Farmer to come home at lunch.
I mixed up a bottle of milk replacer and fed my new lambs. They weren’t very good suckers – so I filled a syringe dropper with milk and filled their bellies that way.
That afternoon the Farmer did the best he could to help the lamb. But it died anyway.
I peeled my smelly barn clothes off and scrubbed the itchy lanolin off my forearms. And vowed not to get too attached to the new babies this year.

1 comment:

Deborah said...

I am so glad you wrote this. It is very hard to see these beautiful sweet lambs and ewes drop to the earth. I so want to get down like you did and scoop them up. It is the Tao (the way) and it is a part of nature that is difficult to digest. We have a sheep ranch just one acre over. In the spring the ewes come in the big trailers for the lambing. I consider it a special event and one of many country traditional events I go running over to with my heart beating fast and my camera. I appreciate this article. Thank you