February 2012


Ok, so we’re into week two of lambing here at Horse Drawn Farms. The bags under my eyes are as large as saucers.  The footstool that allows me to peek over the wall is now a fixture in front of the sheep barn.  And I have seven lambs.  Yes, one and two were easy.  As were three and four.  And really, I didn’t have to do anything about five either, except wonder how only one lamb could come from such an impossibly huge ewe.  But six and seven–arrival time nine a.m. this morning– are killing me.

It could be the lack of sleep making me paranoid, but after 452  sheep barn checks, I could have sworn that neither of these two large, fine looking lambs were getting anything to drink.  Emily, their mother, is my smartest ewe.  The thinker.  The one who leads everyone away from frightening predators, such as Pete, poised for candid sheep photos with his tripod.  She’s friendly too.  At least, she was.  Until I decided to interfere and make absolutely sure her lambs were getting colostrum.  I’d tried waiting.  I’d tried spying.  I’d pretty much tried everything to find out if her lambs were suckling, including lying nonchalantly on my belly outside her lambing pen, shining my headlight on her teats through the wooden slats.  But the minute I was anywhere near her, her large dark body moved between her lambs and me.  Oh, I saw them go under her, into the right place.  But after biffing her in the udder with their heads a few times, they always came back out again, no tails waggling, no time spent.  It was hour four: time for action.

I don't know. I just don't know.

Thus commenced the Amateur Lamb Feeding Marathon, an arduous method  for lamb stomach-filling.  First there is Lamb Placement.  This is when the helpful amateur farmer places the lamb in the correct position for feeding.  And then the lamb walks away.  Or the ewe walks away.  And then the farmer places the lamb back in the correct position for feeding. And the lamb walks away.  Lamb placement is repeated for at least an hour.   Following this, is Lamb Assisting.  Here the helpful farmer prevents (with difficulty) the ewe from walking away and lifts a teat towards the lamb’s mouth.  And the lamb walks away. Or the ewe tries her best to walk away, lifting a foot and struggling mightily.  Lamb Assisting has given me a sore toe (being stepped on) and a wet heel (being suckled on by confused lamb.)  The final step is Lamb Splattering.    An exceeding difficult chore for those farmers with only two hands, in which a ewe must be restrained and her colostrum milked into a waiting pan, amidst kicks, struggles, curses and worried bleats from ovine onlookers.  The precious yellow liquid is then poured into an appropriately clean vessel and carefully fed to the lamb, which doesn’t act in the least interested or grateful, and, in fact,  makes it clear that it does not appreciate colostrum dripping from its chin by throwing its head from left to right, sending colostrum over its back, down its leg and into my ear.

  But I, at least, can sleep for an hour.

Did I do any good?  Did I need to interfere?  Until the morning, I just can’t say.

Who knew that lambing was like this?  Ok, well, someone did.  In fact, thousands of sheep farmers knew, and even put it online and in books like “Raising Sheep For Fun And Profit”  and “Lambing Problems Solved”.   But among the things I’ve learned today is this:  you can’t learn about lambing from a book.   Oh, you can look at the pictures.  You can read about the many awful, horrible things that can go wrong, and all the shepherdly ways to prevent catastrophe, and about those gazillions of supplies you need to have ready to dispatch the moment Sheep 911 is dialled.   But actually standing there, listening to your ewe grunt her little contraction grunt and watch the amniotic sac appear under her tail, is quite different altogether.

Say, what?

It was easy to be nonchalant during the pregnancies of Horse Drawn Farms’  five ewes.   All were experienced mothers, and my ram, Ramien, an experienced father.   (I had to take his libido on faith–not once in the five months he was with the girls did I see him mount anyone.)   But as the calendar pages kept turning, nonchalance turned into consternation, and then, by degrees, into hysteria as I watched the ewes grow and grow…and grow.   I counted days on my fingers, back from when I turned the ram out.  I stared at udders.  I stared at vulvas.  At the correct time, to his offended resentment, I separated Ramien and put him with the goats (more resentment there.)   The ewes, now locked up in the sheep barn until parturition, became used to seeing my head, rising like a frightened moon over the stall door twenty times a day as I stood on tip toe to peep in.

And then,  there it was.  The grunt.  The sac.  The thwip-thwip of my heart in my throat, realizing that I was about to be initiated into farming in a way I hadn’t before.  And as I envisioned all those malpresentations and bottle-feeding techniques while I rummaged in the house for clean towels, I wondered if I was ready.  In five minutes flat, I had the towels ready, the hot water in a bucket, a glass bottle and nipple cleaned and sterilised, an oxytocin injection prepared for Pete (he’s a veterinarian), three text messages sent to said veterinarian to get HOME, NOW, and was striding back to the sheep barn feeling like I’d just run the Vancouver Marathon. Run it, but not placed, apparently, for in those five minutes, Daisy the ewe had quietly dropped a lamb on the straw, cleaned it, watched it stand weeble-wobbling on its long stick-legs, and was now remaining quite still, murmering softly while the lamb snuffled its way along her side and grasped a teat that was bulging with colostrum.  Daisy had things quite firmly under control.

It wasn’t a let-down.  How could such a moment be anything be lovely?   I brought in the lamb rail, separated Daisy and her baby and made sure everyone was comfy and well-bedded.  “Well, Daze”, I said to her backside (her head was stuffed rather unconcerningly into the feed trough), “good thing you didn’t have twins or triplets, it could have been a real tangle in there!”  I glanced, perhaps a tad wistfully, at the unused bucket of steaming water and fresh towels.  Ah well, good thing I was prepared anyway.   I  thought it best to let things settle down.  After all, the next lambing was not likely to go so smoothly. I stepped out of the barn, and heard a little voice ring out.  A distinctly wet little voice.  I shot my head up over the door again, and there, indeed, was Daisy’s second lamb, as quickly and quietly deposited as the first.  And Daisy, again beginning her low murmering chuckle, licking away, looked up at me with a “What?” expression.

By morning, two more lambs were magically deposited beside Spotty Legs, my youngest ewe.   Two more warm, dry lambs, crammed with colostrum and needing me about as much as they needed a hole in their heads.

Lambing.  Thus far, a restful season of  relaxing, watching and appreciating, here at Horse Drawn Farms.

But I left the stack of towels next to the door.

It had nothing to do with me.