Friday, April 10: I discovered our first ewe in labor when I went up to check on the water supply. Todd was at work, and Rita was skittish and distressed. A head had emerged, tongue dangling and much as she tried, the ewe could make no more progress. I tried several times to get hold of her with the hope of figuring out why the lamb was stuck but each time Rita jerked away and stayed away.
I ran into the house, called Todd to come home, returned to the barn alternating between trying to get a hold of the ewe and yelling, crying, and yelling helplessly all over again. I was so angry and so useless it made my skin crawl and my heart race. I grabbed a bungee cord, thought a bit, and then wrapped it around Rita’s neck, dragged her to a hay feeder and secured the hooks so that I could pin her head down, moved to the other end and got in with my right hand to feel and learn why the lamb was stuck. I could feel the right hoof, but I couldn’t find the left one. The books say you need to go along that leg and bring it forward. I couldn’t see how to do this as it was all so tight and I couldn’t seem to find the leg, only the shoulder.
When Todd arrived, we released her from the cord and he held Rita steady while I tried to either find the left leg or somehow pull the lamb forward, convinced by now the lamb was surely dead, its nose was certainly cold. I felt my way to the end of the spine, and scooping the butt pulled, while with my left hand I tugged on the lamb’s neck. In seconds the lamb slipped out and onto the barn floor and moments later he was sneezing, breathing and being licked all over by Mom.
And then the second lamb emerged, this time breech, backwards with hind legs just protruding. While the books say this is the worst position to deal with, we’d learned from our mentor, Louise, to calmly pull both legs downward to avoid snapping the spine and in no time the second lamb was born. Breech lambs can often have fluid in their lungs, again so the books say, so Todd swung the lamb by his hind legs allowing gravity to discharge any fluid.
The lamb was fine, but had a very wobbly rear leg that was painful to watch. He could stand but often he simply fell over because the limb was so bad. Saturday morning, we agreed we should try to splint the bum leg. My sister, Eileen, and Laurel, a dear friend from Chicago who was visiting, agreed to give it a try and splinted the lamb with medical tape and two long flat nail files (about the size of tongue depressors).
I decided that if the lamb was still alive on Monday, he’d earned the right to see a veterinarian. He was and he did. I put him in a laundry basket, secured a second laundry basket on top and put him in the front seat of our truck Moby. The doctor examined the lamb, admired the nail files as a splinting devise, and determined that nothing was broken or abnormal and recommended we let the lamb have a few days without the splint. Today, “Splints” is a giant, limp free and loaded with spunk.
With the first set of twins born, we shifted into lamb watch and had a stretch where new lambs were born every day for over a week. Each new mom was moved over to the nursery side of the barn and installed for about three days in a temporary jug, a six by six foot holding area, allowing mom and babies to get acquainted by smell and sound. Two moms needed some behavior modification, and each spent a few days in a stanchion, unable to walk around or on their lambs, allowing the lambs to milk.
The maternity ward shrank and the nursery grew. We lost a set of triplets despite a heartbreaking effort to save the first one by bringing her in the house, tubing her to warm her up and with Todd sleeping on the kitchen floor next to her through the night. Just when you think you know a few things, new shit happens. Several times we turned to our mentor for advice. Several times we knew just what to do. With the third set of triplets we knew the last one was too cold to be warmed with just a heat lamp. Her temp was 98 degrees when it should have been 102. Quickly we made up a batch of milk replacer laced with artificial colostrum and inserted a tube down her throat and put 120 mls of the warm liquid in her tummy. In no time she was a healthy temperature and four hours later ready to go to Mom for the next meal.
The barn was filling up with so many lambs it was getting hard to tell them apart though one looked like a chihuahua and frankly still does. Martha, our alpha ewe and my hero, delivered two strapping jet black girls and Martha’s two year old daughter Jewel, unfortunately delivered a single male – it’s girls we want – but she is a terrific mom, just like her own.
Throughout the weeks, Todd always showed patience while birthing for me is an anxious time because I worry the lamb won’t get up on his feet, or won’t properly latch on to mom or mom will lose interest or be overwhelmed with twins or triplets. Todd often said, “She was only born 15 minutes ago, Peg. Just wait.” Sometimes I would have to walk away.
Often for the lambs that got up and stumbled around for too long, Todd would hold the mom and I’d kneel right up against her side with the new lamb in my lap. I’d squeeze out some milk to ensure the teat was working and then bring the lamb’s head right up and onto the udder and I’d fumble blindly to get the now wet limp teat all the way into the lamb’s mouth. The moment the sucking began, my relief rolled in and I saw my job as done. Once that lamb knows that teat, she’s off to the races. It’s a simple joy to see an hour old lamb chugging away on mom’s teat. For those lambs that sat in my lap, motionless with a teat in their mouth, I took the position that I’ve intervened enough. Go figure it out on your own. And they did.
Our lambing season lasted three weeks, produced 18 lambs (12 boys, 6 girls) and a slew of sharp memories. We lost some lambs and witnessed dreadful parenting. We were present for most of the births and helped out with a few. Now on pasture, slowly the lambs will rely more and more on grass and grain for their nutrition.
Like the stunning views at the farm, may I never take for granted the opportunity to witness the birth of lambs, the effort it takes to stand on wobbly legs and the chortles and nudges a good mom provides as she guides her baby to her swollen teat. Nature is brilliant, complicated, messy, and humbles the soul.