Yesterday, the day spent in barn and field helping J & L with lambing. I hauled big white buckets of water, fresh hay and buckets of oats and mash, to the new mothers in the lambing pens, kept an eye on labouring ewes, while J was off to the fields to check on a sick animal.
The first lamb of my day, stillborn. I could see an absence of life the moment its head appeared…it’s eyes sunken, shut forever. Often, as a lamb is being born, it will shake its head a bit… there’s a posture of liveliness even when only the head is sticking out of the mother; but this tiny black lamb hung listless as its mother birthed it. And though I rushed to it, removed the sac from its face, put my finger into its mouth, rubbed its chest and body vigourously, I knew it was useless.
The black lamb lay curled, a wet apostrophe in the straw, and I stroked the little bones of its rib cage, wishing it alive, then turned around and looked into the other part of the barn and saw another mother had dropped a big, fat, white lamb, and the lamb wasn’t moving. I ran to it, removed the cowl of amniotic sac from its face, cleaned off its muzzle and stuck my index finger into its mouth. It wheezed and sucked and sneezed and gurgled, shook its head and took a few wet breaths in, then it wheezed and gurgled some more, so I stuck my finger in again and this time it started to suck and I knew everything would be fine. The newborn lay still a few seconds more, I cleaned the sac off its ears and it shook and let out a bawl. When I turned to look for the dead lamb, I saw its mother licking it. She had two more lambs that morning, one with great difficulty. J. later told me that its her last year.
A lot of families come to visit during lambing. In the morning, two fathers brought their children just in time to see me help L. tag, innoculate, castrate and band the lamb’s tails. My job was to corner the mothers and read their ear tags (some of them can really butt hard), then to grab a lamb, identify its sex and hold it up while an ID tag was stapled to its ear, given a shot of selenium, had its tail banded, and if a ram lamb, its testicles banded. It’s always interesting watching the men watch us band the little ram’s testicles with tight rubber bands (the testes fall off in about a week or two). While women come in and watch the birthings with compassion and interest – especially women who are mothers – the men pale and often turn their eyes away during this procedure. Yesterday, L. and I did about twenty-five lambs, after which, we drove to the fields to check on the sick ewes.
J and L rent 800 acres of land and don’t always have control over what happens on the land. In the past few weeks landlords have been dumping landscape clippings onto the fields preparing for a spring bonfire. Unfortunately, a lot of landscape shrubs and garden plants are toxic to sheep, and sheep will eat anything. J. suspects that at least one of his ewes is down with some kind of poisoning, so he made up a jar of fresh ginger and hot water and gave it to the only ewe who refused to get up when we entered the pasture. J’s fear is that if she’s sick any longer, she’ll lose her milk and he’ll have more bottlebabies, or worse, that she will die. Last night, a ewe with a hernia died; her lambs became bottlebabies.
We drove to another field and found the other sick ewe. J. decided that it wasn’t poisoning, but that it was a calcium deficiency. He gave her eight needles of calcium, four in each side, and decided to check on her later. We jumped back into the truck, stopped for a coffee, then headed back to the barn where the old, skinny ewe delivered another two lambs. J. put the dead lamb into a plastic garbage bag, tractored the dead ewe out to the compost pile then he and L. headed off, leaving me to bottle feed two ravenous babies, having first had to catch them in their pen. Not an easy thing to do.