For the past month, I interrogated every shepherd I came across for their lambing stories. There’s only so much I can learn from books, particularly about lambing for the small-scale fiber farmer. I was lucky to be able to visit two shepherds when their ewes were in labor, and saw first-hand what happens with the ewe and the lamb. But even more educational was watching these experienced shepherds, who seemed to work in partnership with the ewes.
When it was my turn, I lost my first lamb, and I’ll always be haunted by the worry that it was because of my lack of experience.
On the very first day of Active Lamb Watch, Quin was listless, refusing to get up, not eating, grinding her teeth, and hiding in the shed. She was even pawing at the bedding, which is a sign that the baby is on the way, but she was acting more like a sick sheep than a sheep in labor. Quin’s pregnancy was unusual from the beginning; until last week, I hadn’t even thought she was pregnant. The others had been developing their udders for several weeks and were showing signs of a growing baby. Quin only last week started to develop a small udder, but she also started to feel bonier, even with the extra grain that she’d been getting with the others. I’ve never had such a lethargic sheep, and she seemed to be getting worse and worse. I called the vet, and when she came, Quin perked right up. She ran away from the vet and ate grass like she was starving. When the vet palpitated her, she said Quin was much farther along her pregnancy than she appeared, and she pumped Quin full of sub-Q fluids and gave her some shots of vitamins. Pregnancy toxemia is serious business, with the ewe’s health declining rapidly.
I watched her for the next couple of hours, and finally, when she nickered to her stomach, I realized that she really had been in early labor all this time. I got my lambing kit and towels, and waited. Her water broke, and within a few minutes, she slipped out a lamb. She jumped away from from it, and I did my best to clear out its nose and mouth, while toweling it dry. There were no signs of life, and it was like every scenario I’d dreaded. Even though it was after midnight, I called the vet and she told me that in all likelihood, the lamb hadn’t developed properly and Quin had miscarried.
The next morning passed in a fog of giving Quin her vitamins and setting up the barn for the others to lamb. Mid-affternoon, Poppy, who had spent the day in barn by herself and gazing blankly at the wall, started to pace. I called another local shepherd I know through the Garden State Sheep Breeders to let her know what happened with Quin, and that I was nervous about the second time. She had just taken a red-eye from CA that morning, and she left work early to come over. Poppy’s labor lasted much longer than Quin’s, and she was struggling mightily to get the baby out. Sue came just as I was starting to panic that the lamb was stuck. Poppy managed to push out the feet, head and shoulders, and Sue grabbed the front legs and pulled the lamb all the way out. She went to work clearing the mouth and nose, then held the baby by the hips and swung the lamb around. I remembered seeing a picture of this in one of my sheep manuals, and never thought that I’d see it in real life. Poppy got a whiff of her baby and was entranced. It was a little ram lamb, with tiny horn buds on his head. Poppy was still a little hunched over and her sides weren’t completely deflated, so Sue suspected that there might be another baby. She put on the shoulder-length surgical gloves she’d brought over, lubed up, and dived in for a feel. She said she could feel another baby, so she had me glove up, lube, and reach in. When my hand was inside, she guided me through what I was feeling: two soft hooves and a hard head, right there. I extricated myself and it didn’t take long for Poppy to deliver the twin. I cleared the nose and mouth, and this time, I felt the lamb come to life as I started to towel it dry. It was a ewe lamb, and she was so frisky that there was no need to swing her around at all.
I was giddy with relief and gratitude that Sue had been there. So when Roobie, who had spent the afternoon in a corner of the barn gazing at the wall, started grinding her teeth just around 10 that night, I didn’t panic that I couldn’t call anyone because it wasn’t a time of night I could call people. Roobie has always been one to look for the easy way out, and she was having a hard time with the realization that there was only one way to cross this bridge. It was suspenseful waiting for the hooves to appear, because that's how you know the baby is positioned properly. It took a long for the hooves to show (pointing down, the way they should be), but she was really straining to pass the head. When she started screaming while trying to push out the head, I called the vet. It was getting to be our regular midnight call. She walked me through pulling the lamb’s legs out one at a time, and when the head still didn’t come out, she had me push the legs back in while I worked to tilt the head lower. Roobie was still screaming but she let me ease my fingers in and try to maneuver that slippery, hard lamb head. As I stretched her skin around the baby’s forehead, she heaved the head out and the rest of the lamb slid out. I toweled away the mucus from the mouth and nose, and yes, I grabbed her by the hips and swung her like a pendulum. I didn’t have the courage to swing her over my head, but I didn’t need to. I could already feel the lamb wriggling in indignation. I laid her down by Roobie’s nose, and watched Roobie become fascinated by her baby. As she licked the lamb’s face, I toweled off the body. There was a “splat” and oh hey, it was the second ewe lamb. Smaller, but so lively I almost had to chase her to clean out her mouth and nose.
Three lambings in 24 hours. I stayed in the barn for a few hours to help Poppy’s lambs, who were still having a hard time latching on to nurse, and to make sure that Moon wasn’t going to do anything exciting overnight.
In the morning, Roobie’s girls were nursing like champs and already hopping and climbing over Roobie. Poppy’s lambs were bouncy, but the ram lamb still hadn’t gotten the hang of nursing. I filled a plastic syringe with Poppy’s milk, and squirted it into the ram’s mouth. I did this throughout the day, and even got him to latch on occasionally. I felt confident that everything was stable enough for me to go to a GSSB meeting in the evening. It was the first time I’d left the house in a week, and it was a comfort to know that everyone in that room had experienced losing a lamb. And they were very understanding when I left early, because I was worried about the ram lamb and about Moon going into labor. I watched her for a while when I got home, but she was still focused as ever on her dinner and chewed her cud as if babies were the farthest things from her mind.
Poppy’s ram lamb was behaving oddly when I looked in on him in the morning: he walked and hopped in a straight line until he bumped into the wall, ricocheted, and then did the same thing off another wall. I was expecting Judi, the shepherd from whom I’d bought my flock, for a visit that morning. By the time she got here, the ram lamb had become increasingly lethargic. She noticed the blindness, and she also noticed that he was wheezing. I called the vet, and she said that it sounded like I had squirted milk into his lungs by using a syringe instead of a bottle. She was concerned about pneumonia, but she was even more concerned about the possible blindness. After her visit for Quin, I really couldn’t afford to have her come out again. I asked what she would recommend, and she suggested injecting him with B complex vitamins and penicillin, which were available at Tractor Supply. His temperature wasn’t elevated, so she thought that the pneumonia hadn’t taken over yet.
I had another friend visiting in the afternoon, and she offered to pick up the medicine and needles. We read through the sheep manuals I had in the barn on how to give injections to a lamb, and I held him while she gave him the shots. One of the GSSB members I talked to said that the lamb’s symptoms sounded like polio, but she’d never seen it in a newborn. When I looked up polioencephalomalacia, the symptoms matched my ram lamb’s behaviors. The survival rate wasn’t promising: he would probably die within 48 hours, with a slim chance that he might make it if we got the B-complex into him soon enough. After his injections, the lamb started to perk up. Hour by hour, he became more energetic. He went back to hopping and ricocheting off the walls, and even though he was still a little wheezy, his temperature didn’t go up. Best of all, he started nursing on his own. I’m trying to not get my hopes up. I told the vet that I’ll just try to keep him going from one set of shots to the next.
It’s now 11:30 p.m. and quiet again in the barn. Moon still doesn’t seem inclined to have her babies, and I would certainly appreciate it if she could hold on until daylight. I’ll stay in the barn until I have to give the lamb his shots at 2 a.m., and in the meantime, I’ll enjoy these moments of listening to the mamas chewing their cud and the babies snoring against them. I’ll never take having healthy sheep for granted again.