Here’s an old post from my last lambing time, February 2010. The days passed in a blur of sleeplessness but I did write about them, and in many cases, take pictures. I just never got this one posted.
The single ewe I’d seen bred in the fall was Azalea, one of my purebred but unregisterable Clun Forest ewes that DH gave me for my birthday in 2008. Counting the dates, I knew Azalea was due February 12. In the days between my first set of lambs and this anticipated second round, I hustled to get more organized.
I built a lamb creep in a corner of the sheep stall. A livestock “creep” is an area where some animals can get in and some cannot. By spacing the vertical bars 8″ apart, I built it so lambs could scamper in and out but adult sheep could only fit their heads in to sniff. The creep is a safety zone. Lambs are often knocked around by ewes. The “teenaged” ewes, who have never seen a lamb before, are the worst offenders — think Mean Girls — but even a staid middle-aged mama will mash another ewe’s lambs into the ground if she’s irritated.
(To be rammed by a sheep’s bony skull is no joke. Years ago a protective ewe charged me and caught my hand against a wall; the hand was swollen and useless for days. Especially in the confines of a stall, a tiny lamb could easily be killed. Thus the creep.)
Across the barn aisle I also built a frame for heavy-gauge wire panels in Job’s old stall, to split it into lambing jugs. A “jug,” in sheep parlance, is a small area where mothers and lambs can be isolated to bond in their first days. Given that I still had six pregnant ewes, I had to be prepared. Dividing Job’s stall gave me two jugs, each 4’x6′.
And then I sat back to wait. As anyone knows, waiting for the birth of a baby is simultaneously tedious and anxiety-producing. Azalea was the only ewe I had a real “due date” for and I still had no idea when the lambs would arrive. They might come early or late. With most animals you can have a rough idea because the vulva swells and body shape changes as the baby drops — but in a rotund sheep in full fleece, very little can be seen. Every night starting on the 10th, I got up at 2 AM, pulled on my coveralls over my pajamas, scraped the truck windshield, and drove the mile down to the farm to check for new lambs.
Azalea just looked at me.
The rest of the animals grew accustomed to the lights flicking on. Birch and Katika would lurch to their feet, blinking. Punch thrust his head over his stall gate. The chickens would stretch a wing out over a foot and cluck sleepily. I’d toss the cows and horses a small flake of hay apiece in apology, snap off the lights, and drive home.
On the fifth night, DH rose early for a business trip. We had our tea and coffee at 3:30 AM. DH left at 4. I drank a second cup of coffee and trudged out to scrape ice off the truck. It was 15° F.
When I opened the barn door I heard the high-pitched crying of a lamb. All the ewes were agitated and noisy. I flicked on the lights. A new lamb was stumbling around in the crowded stall. I was surprised to see a single lamb — Azalea had been huge. Then I spotted a second, tiny black lamb lying ominously still on the ground. I swooped into the stall and scooped it up. It was soaking wet and deathly cold. You can tell a lot about a lamb’s temperature by putting the tip of your little finger in its mouth. This lamb’s mouth was icy. Holding the lamb and dodging the excited adult sheep, I ran out of the stall, snatched a towel from the grain room, and began to rub the lamb dry. To my joy I saw its ribs shudder as it took a ragged breath.
It had to get warm. Lambs should have an internal temperature of 101°. The only place in the barn even close to that temperature was my skin, at 98.6°. I unzipped my jacket, unsnapped my down vest, unzipped my coveralls, put the bloody, half-frozen lamb under my pajamas against my bare chest, and then buttoned everything back up, the lamb’s nose poking clear at my throat. (I’ve had so many slimy, ailing newborns of every variety under my shirt I’ve lost track. It can be inferred that I have a low squeamish response. I learned long ago that human beings are washable.)
I still had to deal with the second lamb, and Azalea. With one arm cradling the first lamb under my shirt, I edged back into the sheep stall and grabbed the second with my free hand. (Sigh — another ram. I so dearly want Clun ewes!) I put this little ram in the jug where he cried piteously. Usually a ewe will follow the sound of her new baby, but Azalea was a first-time mother and obviously disoriented and overwhelmed by the loud baa-ing of the flock.
“Hush!” I scolded the other sheep fruitlessly, until it dawned on me that they would be unlikely to make so much noise with their mouths full. Still cradling the sick lamb with one arm, with the other hand I cut strings on a bale and tossed hay. Instant peace! Oil on troubled waters is nothing compared to filled hay racks in a barn.
With difficulty, I managed to chivvy Azalea out of the flock and across the aisle into the jug. I threw the gate latch and turned on the heat lamp. Then I ran for the truck with the sick lamb under my clothes.
In my kitchen I kicked off my boots and coveralls, shrugged out of my jacket, and gently extricated the lamb. Oh, no! It was damp and chilled and didn’t appear to be breathing. Oh, baby, don’t you die on me!
A warm bath is a good solution for hypothermia. (Years ago I was tapping maples in the school sugarbush in a fierce wind when I became hypothermic and delirious, lying down in the snow. When he couldn’t rouse me, my friend Tommy radioed for a truck, dragged me out of the woods, bundled me into the passenger seat, and drove me home. His supervisor asked him seriously, “Did you strip off her clothes and put her in a hot bath?” Even telling me about this query the next day, Tommy was horrified with embarrassment.) I ran hot water in the kitchen sink, tested it with my free hand, and then floated the lamb in it, keeping his head above the surface. Come on, come on, come on!
In The Secret Garden, Dickon, the Yorkshire boy (and my favorite character), teaches Mary the word “wick,” meaning “alive.” I always think of this word when I’m handling animal newborns. They are so fragile, so directly centered on the knife-edge between living and dying. You can feel in your hands when the wick energy surges into them; similarly you can feel when it slackens and goes away.
I dried the now-warm, limp lamb with a towel. His head lolled. At last I had to admit to myself that he was quite dead.
I felt punched in the solar plexus. If only I hadn’t had that second cup of coffee! If only I’d pulled Azalea into a lambing jug by herself the night before! It seemed impossible that anything could be so perfect and yet — dead. I suddenly had great empathy for Victorians and their memento mori, daguerreotypes of dead infants.
But I couldn’t stop to think about it now. I had to check on the second lamb. I drove back down to the frozen farm. Oh, no! Not again! The second lamb was now huddled and silent on the hay. Azalea as an inexperienced mother had not licked him dry or fed him. She stood in a corner of the jug, regarding her baby suspiciously. Hypothermia and starvation are the number one killers of lambs.
Again I swooped in and scooped up an icy lamb, thrust him under my jacket, and drove home. Again I floated a lamb in my kitchen sink. But this time it worked. The lamb breathed, barely. I hauled him out, dripping, dried him thoroughly with a towel, and put him in a box with a hot water bottle.
Then I drove back down to the farm. (It is times like these when I can’t wait to live a hundred yards from my barn.) I cornered Azalea in the jug, trapped her against the wall with my shoulder, and milked some of her rich warm yellow colostrum into a jar.
In the kitchen I set up my doctoring box. For me, with my rotten memory, this always includes the relevant book. Managing Your Ewe and Her Newborn Lambs is my favorite sheep emergency companion. Laura Lawson recommended a shot of Vitamin B complex and an oral slug of Baby Lamb Strength, a energy mixture that resembles turgid molasses.
All morning long I fed the lamb (who would later be ear-tagged 03) every hour or two from a soda bottle fitted with a Pritchard teat. At first he was a weak infant swaddled in towels in my lap, his eyes closed as he sucked. By lunch time he was able to sit up and take an interest in the proceedings.
Soon he was able to wobble to his feet. Suddenly the recycling carton seemed a bit too small.
That afternoon I re-introduced 03 to his mama. I put a fleece jacket on him as an extra layer against the cold. Poor hormonal Azalea was bewildered and still suspicious…
…but luckily her bag was full to bursting and I knew her weak point. Azalea would go through fire for a cup of sweet feed. She was my wildest, smartest, greediest ewe. While Azalea was busy gobbling, 03 got securely latched onto a teat, and from then on it was clear sailing.
It was due to fall below zero overnight, so I cut out another lamb coat from an old fleece jacket and doubled them up at evening chores. At 8:30 PM Lucy and I went down to do a final check. All was well.
* * *
Azalea turned out to be a fabulous mother. 03 grew fat and strong. Here they are exactly three months later. (Azalea could always be picked out easily by the long tail her breeders never got around to docking.)
All spring Azalea also fed the lambs abandoned by my old ewe Mary. She was still just as wild as ever but she was such a hard worker. I adored her, and looked forward to years of her lambs.
Two weeks after this picture was taken, Azalea died mysteriously in Betty’s pasture overnight. There was not a mark on her. I suspect it was something she ate.