April 7, 2012
With an amazing degree of dependability, the first lambs of spring arrived this week, just as Frances’ book of breeding notes predicted they would months ago. Griffin gave birth to twin Shetland girls – one jet black (as is characteristic for the breed) — on Tuesday, and Notchie followed up with a black Shetland ewe of her own on Wednesday. From her physical symptoms, we could tell that Willow, one of the Icelandics, would be up next. Her udder was full, she was grinding her teeth and she was starting to separate herself from the others. The Icelandics are an independent group, easily the flightiest of our flock. We did not look forward to managing this part of the lambing process.
This morning Frances awoke to overcast skies and went right out to check on the sheep. Willow was lying down by herself near the stock pond. This would be the day. Frances was startled to see the tips of two hooves and a little nose already emerging from the birth canal. All the parts were aligned correctly and yet there did not seem to be progress. Every now and then Willow would push, almost half-heartedly, unlike the Shetlands whose contractions earlier in the week were accompanied by energetic pushes. Frances watched for 15 minutes and Willow pushed a bit more, but still no progress. Time for more active intervention. Frances reached her hand inside to see if she could detect an obstruction. Everything seemed smooth, but tight. But Frances could feel the lamb’s mouth and teeth, so she knew the amniotic sac had been breached. Time was now of the essence. Willow stood up and started walking. Frances telephoned me back at the house; I grabbed the emergency basket and my camera and drove out to the pasture. Willow’s two attendants – the equally flighty Shetland-Barbados cross Tilly and a second Icelandic, Sunrise – were nearby but vanished when the car arrived.
Together we followed Willow as she wandered further back. Her independent streak, in the best of times a hindrance to orderly herd management, now was downright infuriating. Clearly she was laboring. Possibly she needed help. But under no circumstances would she lie still and let us help. Onward she walked and we followed, faced with the sight of an emerging lamb just showing from her uterus. She turned east toward the dried-up stream bed, and then north along the bed to an area of rocks and stream bank erosion, where we believe snakes lie in waiting for us. I dropped down into the bed of the stream and inched closer to Willow. I waited for a labor contraction to distract her and then moved forward to drape a halter around her head. Contraction or no contraction, Willow evaded the halter and moved up onto the tall grass next to the stream. Now she was heading in the “right” direction, as far as we were concerned, toward the run-in shed where we could keep ewe and lamb controlled and under surveillance. Willow stopped in her tracks and Frances approached from behind, whispering softly, then reassuringly stroking the sheep’s backbone. She was able to reach up and inside the uterus again, lifting the lamb even as she pulled gently on it. Still there was no progress. Willow stretched out on the ground and Frances tried again. This time the head and front legs emerged. The lamb was taking breaths, but its eyes were still closed and it did not appear to be moving with any vigor.
Then, it seemed, the lamb stopped breathing. “She’s dead,” Frances told me, about 10 yards away. With that immense disappointment, Frances decided she had been just too gentle in trying to ease the lamb out. With nothing now to lose, she decided “to hell with it, I’ve got to get this body out.” Willow was not pushing in any appreciable way. Frances reached in again with one hand, simultaneously pulling down and out. The time for gentle, tentative tugs was past. She reached in more aggressively and pulled harder. The lamb now came out quickly, just as the lambs had done earlier in the week when two of the Shetlands gave birth. We now could see this was another black lamb, and a large one at that. Such a shame.
And then, lying on the ground, the lamb gasped for breath. It was 8:50 a.m. “Well I’ll be go to hell,” Frances said under her breath. The lamb was still alive. We looked expectantly at Willow to start cleaning her lamb as the other mothers had. But she did not even look back. Frances started brushing amniotic fluid from the lamb’s wool. Again she breathed, then again. We tried once more to get Willow’s attention but the ewe would not even acknowledge the lamb. Finally, we lifted the still-weak lamb and placed her in front of her mother. Willow stood and raced off, making the rejection complete.
We studied the lamb once more to gauge its chances for survival. It was much larger than the Shetland lambs from earlier in the week. It was not actively moving, deprived as it was of the strengthening massage of its mother’s tongue during the usual clean-up phase. We wrapped her in a towel and carried her to the run-in shed. Frances ran to the house to warm up a formula of colostrum and rich milk that she had prepared earlier in the week just in case. I sat with the baby in my arms, the towel wrapped snugly around it. I pressed my body against it to keep it as warm as possible. This lamb was all legs. Try though I might to cradle it, fore legs and hind legs kept springing out of the cocoon. I had the very real sensation that the lamb was growing even as I held it.
Frances returned, armed with a potent elixir of whole milk, cream, butter milk and colostrum powder. The lamb gnawed on the teat, although she seemed to be teething on it more than drinking from it. A few drops tickled her tongue and she begun sucking harder. After an ounce or two, Frances set her upon the ground and the lamb stretched her muscles again. She was on her way. Her name would be Lucky.