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Monday, April 25, 2011

Lulu the overprotective mother

It’s a good thing we had a break from the ice pellets, snow flurries and gale-force winds Tuesday because that was the afternoon Lulu decided to have her lambs. Outside.
I was looking for the horse and found her, standing with Donkey, on a hill of hay beyond the feeders. Wobbling around beneath their legs were three little black-and-white lambs. Mama Lulu was busy trying to coax her babes out from under the huge Belgian. Fearless, she repeatedly head butted Misty’s legs in an attempt to get the massive horse to move. As I approached, the horse and Donkey moved toward me and the sheep family was reunited. But I had to get them in the barn.
First I scooped up the lambs – all three of them. Lulu started screaming at me. Then I started backing up toward the barn, and her job was to follow. Usually this technique works pretty well. But normally the curious horse is not there, getting in the way and blocking the ewe’s view of her lambs. Lulu scurried back to the spot where she had given birth. She ran around in circles, calling for her lambs. I pushed Misty out of the way and went back to Lulu. She saw the lambs in my arms, commented and followed me for a moment, then something distracted her and she ran back to the birthing spot again.
I decided to try something else. I went into the barn with the lambs and deposited two of them in the pen. I took the third one back outside as bait. The lamb’s cries summoned the mother, who suddenly charged at me, head butting my leg. Ow! I almost dropped the lamb. I backed up as fast as I could, tripping over muddy tractor ruts. Lulu charged me again. “Hey! I’m trying to help you!” She was intent on getting that lamb out of my arms. Finally we were in the barn. I opened the gate, put the third lamb in the pen, and the other lambs started crying. Lulu heard them and ran toward their call. I shoved her fluffy butt into the pen with my boot and slammed the gate shut behind her. She grumbled and knickered at her lambs, touching each one on the top of the head with her nose, to count them.
“One, two, three. Huey, Dewey and Louie. They’re all there, mama.”
I set up the pen with hay, fresh water and a bowl of sweetfeed for the lactating ewe. It didn’t take her long to get used to the idea of being locked up. She had a nice, dry pen with room service.
Sheep only have two teats so naturally you tend to worry when there are more than two lambs born. I went back outside a few hours later and all three were up and feeding. Their hips were rounded (if the tummy is empty their hips hollow out) and they seemed to be content. I thought I should give them each 50mls of milk replacer anyway, just to top them up.
I leaned over the gate and reached as far into the pen as I could. I couldn’t reach a lamb. They looked at me, sniffed my gloves, but stayed just out of reach. The ewe turned to look at me. She squared herself toward me, and backed up a couple steps. Uh-oh. I could sense another head butt coming on. I straightened up and looked at her. She stamped her foot in warning.
Then I remembered the shepherd’s crook. I had seen the Farmer pick up lambs this way. I dipped the hook into the pen, wiggled it under a belly and scooped the lamb up.
“Haha. Got your lamb,” I told mama. She grumbled at me, and pushed her nose through the gate to sniff at the bottle of milk I was feeding her young.
Oh well, better an overprotective mother than one with no maternal instincts at all.

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.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

First of the spring lambs arrived this morning. In triplicate.

Letter to a Loved One

At least one of our cats has had kittens. Her previously bulbous belly now looks like a deflated balloon, and she keeps coming up to the house for more treats more treats more treats. I wish someone would open a clinic where they allow you to bring your barn cats to get fixed. And I wish that researcher would hurry up and create that cat contraceptive she’s been writing about. I need it. I know you would have a comment or two about my problem but you can just keep that opinion to yourself, thanks.:)
Most of the lambs are in the barn now, with swelling udders (do sheep have udders?) and really bad haircuts. Actually the Farmer did a fantastic job with his brand-new shears but the sheep just look odd to me with no wool. They look naked and foolish. Lambs will be born by the end of the month. Then the excitement begins. I hope we have planned the season well and taken all necessary precautions so that the lambing will be successful and the ewes will have plenty of milk and maternal instincts to care for their young. And if they don’t, I’ll be there with a baby bottle in the middle of the night to feed the forgotten.
The snow is all gone and the tulips are coming up. I sent away for a Rose of Sharon and I’m more than a little excited about it. Hopefully “Sharon” will take over and choke out the yellow outhouse flowers that crowd my flower bed each year.
I bought a pot of salmon-pink Gerbera daisies (my favourite; probably not yours ;) to put on your gravesite today. But I didn’t make it there. Life is busy, as I’m sure you remember. And quite honestly, although we chose the perfect spot for future generations to visit and remember you – at the back of the cemetery, on the ridge overlooking the creek, where deer and birds visit (we’ve seen the tracks) - I just don’t get the feeling that you are there. I know many people go to the final resting places of their loved ones and talk to them, bringing them up to date on the goings on of their lives. I just don’t feel I need to do that.  I feel you already know exactly what’s going on in my life.
You know I’m in between jobs and a little stressed by it. When I’m writing a huge proposal for a contract, I feel you are giving me advice and putting words into my head. Checking my math on the financials. I get some sort of energy from you that pushes me to meet my assignment deadlines and boosts my confidence at meetings and presentations.
I’m sure you know we buried two of our friends this week, and that we were physically and emotionally exhausted by Friday, my 43rd birthday. The gatherings, the visitations, the funeral – it’s been three years since we were the ones standing in line receiving heartfelt sympathies but the memories are still very fresh.
You know that one of the issues lying in wait, eager to be dealt with, is that our only remaining daughter plans to move out this summer. As she should. She is almost eighteen. I’m not worried about the empty nest syndrome – the Farmer and I enjoy each other’s company and we are proud of our independent daughters. I’m just worried that she is entering that next phase, heading off into the great unknown. I know you know what I’m going through. But I sure would love to have you here, to get your opinion, your advice and your sense of humour, which always had a way of lightening the load.
I miss you Dad. Love, D. x

Secret Lives of Animals

Does your dog or cat have a certain sparkle in their eyes that makes you wonder what they’ve been up to while you’ve been at work? Up until a few weeks ago, I worked outside the home fulltime. Now that my commute is a short walk down the stairs and into the den, I can see what goes on around the farm all day. It’s been quite an eye-opener, to say the least.
One morning last week, the Farmer / Professor had just left for work and I was heading out to the barn to feed our ewes-in-waiting. I was just passing by the feeders when an odd movement caught my eye. A very round ewe was lying on her back in the mud. She was bicycling her little stick legs in the air, in a vain attempt to turn herself over. I ran over, wedged my arms underneath her and shoved with all my might. My feet slid in the muddy bed she had made, and she rolled right on top of me. Ugh. I just sat there for a moment or two, catching my breath. I took a rag out of my pocket and wiped the mud out of her eye. I could feel her heart pounding as she lay exhausted on my arm. 1, 2, again I shoooooved and finally she was up on her feet….and then she flopped back again in my direction. I stopped her with my body, tipped her back up on her feet and quickly straddled her, holding her upright until she could steady herself. I could feel all her insides gurgling and shifting. Gross. Finally the dizziness lifted and she had the strength to take a few staggering steps away from me. Her entire bulk had shifted over to the side where she had lain, probably for most of the night. She was definitely a lop-sided sheep. I kept a close eye on her for the rest of the morning, and by noon she appeared to be almost normal again. Later I saw the horse bullying her way around the feeder, spilling sheep left and right. That’s probably how the ewe ended on her back: she just rolled down the hill and ended up in the mud. Made me wonder what else goes on when the animals don’t know someone is watching. I soon found out.
As I re-entered the house, I caught the cat playing hockey with something shiny. It was one of Paulina’s earrings, and it was heading for the basement stairs, where it probably would have ended up in the floor drain or sump pump. I confiscated it just in time, as the cat squawked her disappointment at me. I made a mental note to check the basement floor for my missing USB stick and camera batteries.
After lunch, as I was settling in to my armchair with a cup of tea and a 52-page document, I saw something out the window that made me take a second look. Donkey was in the driveway, rolling on his back. I opened the door and sure enough, the horse was out there in the yard too. “Hey, you two!” I yelled. When Misty saw me, she dug her hooves into the yard, tearing up the grass. She kicked her hind legs in the air and took off after Donkey, who was heading back to the stable. Those two rascals navigated their way back through the farm equipment, stopped to nibble at the hay bale, and then gingerly stepped back through the door to the barnyard (Misty scraping her big belly as she squeezed through). The door swung shut and latched itself as they exited. I just stood there scratching my head. So that explains the mysterious droppings I sometimes find on my lawn when the animals are innocently watching me from the confines of the fencing.
About an hour later I heard the noise of the oil truck coming down the driveway. I thought it odd that Cody didn’t bark at all. I looked out the kitchen window, just in time to see the driver hop down out of his truck, with a Tupperware container of food in his hand. As I watched, this guy emptied his lunch leftovers into Cody’s bowl, and then proceeded to attach the hose to the house, filling up our oil tank, natural as could be.
After he drove away, I opened the door and Cody looked at me, wagging his tail.
“So I guess you have a whole other life I don’t know about, huh?” He wagged his tail and continued to munch on his sub sandwich.