Two nights ago at chores it seemed to me that Blossom (formerly Mango) was looking thoughtful.
I’m actually a little weary of trying to evaluate the thoughtfulness of a ewe’s expression … but Blossom’s udder was suddenly curving below her wool coat and I realized she’d bagged up. Blossom is next, I thought. But since she was eating hay, I figured it was safe to go home for supper.
Sure enough, when I returned, there was Blossom in the midst of the flock, a lamb staggering beside her. I scooped up the lamb and with some difficulty enticed Blossom out of the busy sheep stall and into the quiet of a lambing jug. I looked everywhere for a twin — she had been so huge! — but there was only a single, big ewe lamb. Rats! I dried the lamb with a towel and weighed her. 10 lbs, 15 oz. A nice hefty girl, with her mother’s lop ears.
However the lamb seemed worryingly “off.” She did not bleat. Her muscles were flaccid and reflexes slow. She would not stand and had no interest in the teat. She was a big, slack lump. In concern I raced home for a bottle and nipple.
Back in the jug, I pinned Blossom to the wall, milked her tiny teats into a bottle with two fingers, pulled the lamb into my lap, and tried to feed her some warm colostrum. The lamb had no sucking reflex. Only by squeezing the milk into her mouth and stroking her throat could I get her to swallow. I had toweled her dry but she did not stop shivering. Though I’ve been spooked by recent reports of barn fires caused by heat lamps, I plugged in my heat lamp and pushed the lamb into a fleece jacket.
Captain Freddie was extremely interested in all this commotion (Freddie is vitally interested in everything going on in the barn). He jumped into the jug with me. Here you see Blossom eyeing Freddie. All the ewes seem to take a dim view of barn kittens.
Moments later Blossom rammed Freddie away from her baby. Undiscouraged, he climbed up the stall wall and sat observing from above. Meanwhile my steer calf Rocky and heifer Moxie in the next stall had their noses pressed to the boards, watching my sheep ministrations through the cracks.
I was a bit stymied. The lamb was not 100% or even 90%, but other than feeding and drying her, I wasn’t sure what to do. At home I had Nutri-drench and Vitamin B-12 injections, but for the moment I just sat in the jug with the lamb in my lap, warming her with my body heat. The cattle lay down again next door, chewing their cuds placidly.
When I left for the evening, the two ewes and their lambs were safe in their jugs. Lamb 02 still seemed dopey, but at least she had some colostrum in her belly and had stopped shivering. Blossom was standing guard. I promised myself I would check again at 4 AM.
As I reached to snap out the lights, I looked over at the big sheep stall and noticed that Mango (formerly Blossom) was looking thoughtful.
At 4 AM it was snowing hard when I drove down to the farm. The highway was unplowed and deserted. I was on automatic pilot, wearing my pajamas under my coveralls. Even in my sleepy state, I admired the pattern of falling snowflakes caught in the twin beams of my headlights.
In lambing season, all the animals are happy to see me turning lights on in the night. They know I will throw everyone an extra flake of hay.
Aha! Mango was pawing the ground. Yet I didn’t have another lambing jug free — how to separate her from the rest of the flock? She was grimacing in early labor and the young ewes were jumping all over her. OK, Sel, it’s time to be creative!
I climbed up in the pitch-dark hayloft, felt around for hay bales, and threw four down. Rapidly I built a wall of bales to block off a corner, backing the bales with a couple of short wire fence panels. The rest of the flock stopped being curious about Mango, her grunting and pawing, and fell to pulling apart the outermost bale of hay.
I sat on a bale for a while and watched Mango. Her lips curled back from her teeth with contractions. However, confounding all my theories of ewes laboring with singlemindedness, in between she stood up, stretched, and snatched a few bites of hay.
It seemed to be going very slowly. The temperature was 4° F. A little before six o’clock I drove home to wake up Lucy for school, gulped a hot cup of coffee standing at the kitchen counter, and drove back.
Nothing seemed to have progressed. Mango was still in the same position. Then I stepped closer to the hay bales and saw the large, motionless lamb lying behind her in slime on the hay. It was not breathing. Oh, no! After all that waiting, I missed it, and the lamb is dead!
In books they say non-breathing lambs can sometimes be kicked-started by swinging them vigorously overhead by the ankles. This is harder to do than it sounds. A newborn lamb’s legs are like reeds, slippery with slime; the fragile sticks want to squirt through your fingers. I lifted the big lamb by the hind legs and tried to swing him (without hitting either the low ceiling or the alarmed flock transfixed in a semi-circle three feet away).
“Breathe, damn it!” I grunted as I pivoted on my heels, swinging the lamb in an arc.
The lamb’s ribs heaved. He started to breathe.
I laid him down, cleared his face, and ran for a towel. Mango pulled herself to her feet and chewed on my knuckles excitedly as I rubbed the ram dry. He was a big, vigorous boy: 12 pounds, 10 ounces. (Again, alas, a singleton. Perhaps my six older ewes will give me only six lambs this year!) This lamb was eager to suck, staggering to his feet and poking his nose blindly toward Mango’s udder, but he could not find the teat in all the wool, despite my guiding fingers and the trimming I’d done around her bag a month ago.
I’m sure the difficulty is due to the endangered Lincoln Longwool genetics I was so proud to introduce to the flock ten years ago. These days I wonder how Lincoln lambs ever survived. Lincolns are the sheep equivalent of string mops.
Now that daylight was up I could move the sheep. My barn stalls and gates are not ideal in lambing season. In a complicated game of musical chairs I turned out the main ewe group from the big stall; got Smoky and her lamb out of the far jug and into the empty stall, and replaced her in far jug with Blossom and her lamb. Then into the near jug I ushered Mango and this latest lamb.
Mango was a bit perplexed by her new boy and though she licked him and talked to him non-stop, whenever he came close to her teats she nervously kicked him away.
When I tried to help she jumped away so frantically that she almost squashed the lamb. She would not let me anywhere near her udder with scissors to further cut back the forest of wool. Finally I was able to push her into the wall and milk her into a bottle.
I decided to bottlefeed 03 with colostrum just as I had 02. I hate to interfere unnecessarily, but I hate dead lambs even more. Starvation is the number one killer of lambs. I felt confident Mango’s problems would be sorted out eventually, but I wanted to be sure. A bottle of warm yellow colostrum provides easy peace of mind.
By mid-morning, both Blossom and Mango were quiet in their jugs — with warm, sleepy lambs at their sides.