Three of my ewes were due on Friday, and between Friday midday and Saturday at midnight, five new lambs arrived. Naturally, this bonanza occurred during our first real snowstorm of the winter.
Naturally, also, the first to lamb was Madeleine, my two-year-old cross-bred ewe that I’d left in the melée of the big maternity stall. The night before, after sorting the other two impending mamas into jugs, I had given Madeleine another look. Were her flanks suddenly sunken? Hmm. It’s hard to discern much of a girl’s figure when it’s muffled under a four-inch-thick wool coat but I always try to pay attention when anything catches my eye. Often I can’t tell what I’ve seen but my eye has registered something different.
Sure enough, at morning chores Madeleine was lying down with a strained expression as young lambs bounced off her back, playing King of the Hill.
It wasn’t hard to convince Blackberry to leave her jug, though rather harder to convince Madeleine, in labor, that she wanted to get up and walk across the aisle. However she went with my urging — “No children there!” — and my encouraging hands under her bottom, then labored with soft bleats and groans while I mucked out the barn.
Within an hour she delivered a pretty 9 lb ewe lamb. Madeleine is Mango’s daughter and appears to have the same good mothering instincts. She was on her feet licking and pawing the new arrival immediately. It was clear to me that she was about to deliver a second lamb. Every once in a while a distracted look would pass over her face and she would pause briefly as a contraction hit. But she ignored it and kept on.
Eventually the contractions were so strong she had to lie down. Nevertheless the moment the first lamb made the slightest sound, Madeleine would jump back to her feet. Up, down, up, down. It was a relief when the second twin was born. This was a ram lamb, 8 lbs 4 oz.
For the first hour the little ram made a wheezing noise like a klaxon horn, something I’d never heard before. I worry that he may have aspirated fluid. But by lunchtime everyone was dry, fed, and warm.
Now, you would think, since I had only one more jug and two ewes still to lamb, I would have bent my problem-solving skills to this dilemma.
Sadly, no. I was distracted by the realization that Madeleine, also exactly like her mother Mango, appeared to have an inadequate milk supply for twins. All the babies had received their lifesaving colostrum, thankfully, but as the snow continued to fall through the day Saturday I drove back and forth to the farm to top up both sets of twins with warm bottles of Katika’s milk.
(It’s a dicey thing with supplementing. You want to give the babies enough to keep them strong and warm and vigorous, but not so much that they stop searching for milk from their mothers. It is the suckling that increases milk supply, as much as is possible.)
I was also distracted by the glum realization that I was a classic hobby farmer ruled by foolish sentiment, that I’d originally kept Madeleine simply because she was so friendly, that I should have realized she would inherit her mother Mango’s poor milk supply, and that especially when Madeleine barely had adequate milk for a single lamb last year, I should never have wintered her over. It felt like a last straw now to discover that, again like her mother, Madeleine for all her friendliness was too nervous to allow me to trim around her woolly bag.
So it was that when I drove back to the barn at 9 PM, fighting through wind-whipped snowdrifts, I was not surprised to find both Briar and Blackberry in labor — but I was also unprepared.
As prey animals, sheep tend to hide their suffering, so as not to attract the attention of a predator. Briar was a notable exception to this rule. With every contraction she screamed at the top of her voice and threw herself against the walls of the jug, panting. The bedding was soaked and churned into a mess.
In the crowded main stall, Blackberry stared stolidly ahead, grinding her teeth.
The first thing to do was to build a temporary jug for Blackberry. With the yearlings penned in the aisle I had few options there. I climbed up into the hayloft and groped around blindly in the dark. The wind howled. Why hadn’t I done this in daylight? I found the stake rack panel for the back of my truck and lowered it through the hatch of the hayloft. After several trips up and down the ladder to gather more scraps, I screwed together a quick, narrow pen to block Blackberry from the rest of the flock. It was ramshackle but it would work.
Then I went to see to Briar, climbing over the yearlings in the aisle, and then over the stall wall into the jug while loaded with towels, navel iodine, scissors, and lamb jackets. At 10 PM Briar delivered a nice 10 lb ram lamb. Its wet coat steamed. The temperature was 4° F.
Briar needed no help, nor did the lamb. I dried him, dipped his umbilical cord in iodine, and put a jacket on him. He staggered to his feet, instinctively searching for a teat.
Briar’s udder also needed no trimming. She is only half Clun Forest, but she has zero Lincoln blood. I am coming to the conclusion that I may want to get rid of all the Lincoln ancestry in my flock. The woolly udders are problematic with my lambing vs. shearing schedule, significantly increasing my hassle and work. Of course, another option would be to change my schedule.
Meanwhile I heard the sharp cry of a newborn in the direction of Blackberry’s thrown-together jug. I climbed out of Briar’s jug, clambered over the yearlings, and went back to Blackberry.
There in the hay was a nice little purebred Clun ewe lamb with dark points. Twenty minutes later, Blackberry delivered a second lamb, much larger and lighter in color but also a ewe. In four years Blackberry has given me six lambs, five of them ewes. Blackberry is my foundation ewe, and I love her.
It was very cold. The temporary jug for Blackberry adjoined the lamb creep and the other lambs repeatedly bounced in to investigate. Eventually I took one of my towels, wet with birth fluid, and draped it over the opening. It froze into place, blocking access. This was convenient but made me worry even more about the newborns.
I had only one heat lamp, currently hanging over the jugs far away across the aisle. I had to gamble that Blackberry was such an experienced mother that she would keep her babies close and warm through the night.
By now it was wearing on toward midnight. After a week of insomnia I was so tired that my brain seemed hardly to be working. Every time I went out to the truck for more dry towels — I was too foggy to remember to bring them all in at once — the force of the wind and blowing snow almost knocked me down. I was aware of smiling at the cliché: It was a dark and stormy night.
I told myself I’d just make sure all the lambs were dry and had some colostrum and then I’d go home and fall into bed. At one point I was holding a lamb in nursing position with my face pillowed on Blackberry’s woolly back and I felt myself nodding off.
* * *
In the morning the driveway was drifted in snow almost to the truck fenders. I rolled back the barn doors with worry in my heart. Had the new babies lived through the night?
They had. Madeleine and her twins.
Briar and her single boy.
Blackberry and her twin girls.
Eight ewes have given birth and we have twelve lambs. Three more to go.