Lambing 101, continued

Lambing 101, continued

Poppy’s ram lamb died today. After responding to the B complex injections on the first day, his condition declined day by day. I continued to give him his injections around the clock and kept thinking that I saw a spark now and then that meant that he was getting better. But by yesterday evening, he was panting, drooling, and trembling. After wrestling with myself today about how much intervention I was going to seek for him, I called my vet to let her know I was going to bring him to her. And then at the last minute, I changed my mind and decided to take him to another fiber farmer, who has 15 years of experience raising animals, plus veterinary training.

He rode in my lap during the hour-long ride, and he was desperately agitated until I was almost there, and then he gave up struggling and flopped onto his side. My friend did what she could, but he started having seizures until his heart stopped. I think the stress of the car ride was too much for him.

I could drown in my self-recrimination and regrets. I think his twin sister will miss him, but it seemed as if Poppy had known that he wasn’t going to make it. She never looked for him, or made sure that he followed her.

Being with a fellow shepherd, especially someone who is as compassionate as she is knowledgeable, was a great comfort. She reminded me that raising animals means losing animals, and that’s how you become experienced and learn what to do and what not to do. And then she sat me down and showed me exactly how to place a feeding tube, and made me practice giving injections properly.

Scarlet, my friend’s 5-week old, bottle-baby angora kid, was my poor test subject. She was due for her evening bottle, so my friend taught me how to insert a tube to give her the formula. Not much fazed Scarlet, and she was even a great sport about letting me turn her into a pincushion as I practiced my subcutaneous injections.

My friend was going out of town for the week, so I jokingly offered to babysit Scarlet while she was gone. Turns out she was looking for someone to take her for the week, so she was more than happy to take me up on my offer. Sure, it was impulsive, but I have to admit that it felt wonderful to hold such a vibrantly alive critter in my arms. And she was terrific company on the ride home, distracting me from the fact that my ram lamb wasn’t coming home with me. I have to embrace the fact that life goes on, and tomorrow, I’ll actually be able to enjoy watching my 3 healthy ewe lambs frolic and play. Not to mention the novelty of having a visiting baby goat in the barn.

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Lambing 101

Lambing 101

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.

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How To Tame Your Lamb

How To Tame Your Lamb

Phoebe and Beatrice are such good friends. Just because two sheep are the same age doesn't mean that they'll get along, but these two are a good match. 

Beatrice is outgoing, and has been accepted by the big girls, but she really enjoys hanging out with Phoebe. And without Beatrice, Phoebe would be lost.

For the past few nights, I've been separating the new girls from my old girls at night. My old girls are used to having my undivided attention, and they won't let the new girls get close to me. My evening routine has settled into taking hay and grain to the old shed, letting my old girls push the new girls out, and then closing the gate behind them. Then, the new girls are free to follow me to the new barn, where they get their own hay and grain.

I sat at the barn threshold with the grain trough in my lap. With their noses buried in the trough, I was able to pet Moon and even Beatrice. I didn't try to pet Phoebe the first couple of nights, because I didn't want to interrupt her eating. I just concentrated on keeping Moon from butting her away from the trough.

It helps that Moon isn't shy and will always walk over for pets--the two lambs watch her and it makes them wonder what they're missing. Beatrice had come over a couple of times to snuffle at my fingers, but both lambs seemed afraid of my hands. I can't blame them; I knew the breeder had been travelling this spring, and hadn't been able to cuddle them as much as she would have normally. And the last thing they remembered was being grabbed and hauled away from their mommies to be brought here. 

So for a few nights, I let them eat from the trough and only reached out to Moon and Beatrice. But last night, as I was putting the old girls in the old shed, Moon snuck by and decided to party with the other yearlings.*

Which left me with just the lambs! I got more hay and grain for the lambs, and they followed me to the new barn. Instead of the trough, I brought the grain in a scoop. I sat on the threshold again, which is basically at ground-level, and held the grain in my hand. They just gave me some suspicious side-eye, and wouldn't eat the grain. I sprinkled the grain on the threshold next to me, and Beatrice came over to vacuum it all up. When she started to look for more, I held out a handful of grain again. She'd only had a little grain and wanted more, so this time, she ate out of my hand. In the meantime, Phoebe finally came to the threshold that had been licked clean of grain by Beatrice. With the hand that wasn't feeding Beatrice, I sprinkled another handful on the threshold for Phoebe. As she was eating the grain, I took another handful and held it just above the threshold. And finally, finally, she took the grain from my hand.

When the grain ran out, I reached out slowly and started scratching Beatrice's nose. And then her chest. She froze, and I could see it dawning on her why the older girls would mob me for pets. I scratched her chest and started picking sticks and dried leaves off her fleece as her eyes glazed over and she started burping and chewing her cud.

Phoebe watched for a while, and then sidled up. I held out my hand, and then, I slowly withdrew my hand. I don't know if all sheep are this way, but when I draw my hand away from my sheep, they automatically follow my hand and step closer. Phoebe did exactly that and put her soft little nose in my hand. She had all sorts of leaves, hay, and other um, barnyard detritus stuck in her fleece, and she let me pull everything out. I got the feeling it was the first time she'd felt completely at ease here. She had a full tummy from being able to eat without having to worry about being chased, butted, or trampled by the big girls, and as I scratched her neck and chest, she flopped down and fell asleep immediately.

By this time, Beatrice was so over being shy that she'd bury her head in the hay basket, then come stand in front of me, dripping hay, and butt my hand to pull the hay off her. 

*And they did party, those punks! They pushed open the gate to the front field, and spent the night chomping on fallen apples and stripping the bark off the apple branches. They had so much fun all night that they've been sleeping all morning. Teenagers, honestly.

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