Before we begin, you must understand this: the act of burying your nose in the warm woolen folds of a newborn lamb’s neck is a movement that offers a portal to the Divine, a transcendent moment when all else fades into the periphery, bringing the very essence of life sharply into focus. The powerful scent of a new lamb, still fresh from having traveled through the winding path to the world, is a passport to this primal awareness, becomes like a drug. Newborn lambs offer us a path to the sublime, if only for a moment.
I should also mention that the longing for more lambs emerged within me last fall the way that urging for babies of the human kind emerges within other women. Dismissing the initial plans to forgo lambing for a season, I sought out the perfect ram candidate, and we set out on a 4 hour journey through tollways with a livestock trailer (they soak you double for those) to go retrieve him. The trailer door was still a-swinging when the new ram, Sweet Billy, started paying off his debt.
That was roughly five months ago, enough time to gestate a perfect pair of twins.
With the help of my Apprentice Sheep Midwife, the vigilant watch for signs of lambing began. Ewes laying down, their promise of life within bulging at their sides like saddlebags, were checked closely. Agnes, a first-time mom, claimed the sheep hut one night, keeping the others at bay with some mysterious power. The next morning, clad in my nightgown and robe and fresh-poured coffee, I ran out to perform the cursory sheep inventory check as I had been doing first thing each day for the past week. I stopped short at the sheep hut when I was greeted by a lamb at Agnes’ side and then, upon closer inspection, a dead lamb behind her.
It wasn’t the first lamb casualty I’ve born, it certainly won’t be the last, but that makes it no easier to swallow the loss. A ram lamb. “What went wrong?” I asked myself, asked Agnes. First timer or not, she seemed to slip easily into motherhood, sequestering herself within the shelter, tending her surviving lamb carefully, with great attention.
A wave of paranoia set in, born in part from the physical exhaustion of having just completed the first round of chicken butchering the day before, and in part from the presence of the lamb carcass before me, and I agonized over whether or not the surviving lamb, a ewe, was getting enough milk. Or more specifically, colostrum – that powerhouse of nutrients and immunity passed from mother to lamb within the first hours of birth. A lamb’s stomach is only receptive to the vital components of colostrum for a short window of time, after which they are no longer able to pass freely through and I could hear the ticking of the clock quite clearly in my mind. An easy way to tell if a lamb is actually latched and getting milk, they say, is by the motion of the tail – a vigorous swishing back and forth like an overexcited metronome is a reliable visual. There was no such swishing from this girl. I gently guided her to the teat, squirted her in the face with the sticky cream-colored liquid, hoping to whet her appetite. She seemed uninterested; I sank further into despair, worrying now that I could lose her as well.
As with parenting, there are lots of different styles of shepherding. I came to this gig hot on the heels of absorbing the tenets of natural, woman-centered birth, the mechanics of breastfeeding, the potential elusiveness of a good latch. All of this has informed my lambing philosophy, as I strive to form it. As with the current status quo of human birth, conventional practices of lambing often include many more interventions than I’m inclined to, often stem from the underlying belief that the shepherd (doctor), not the ewe (woman), is in charge and the expert. Centuries of domestication have arguably bred the mothering instincts out of many breeds of sheep, so this intervention in many cases becomes necessary, part of the shepherd’s responsibilities to mitigate financial loss. Could I have prevented the death of the ram lamb with more frequent checking of Agnes through the night, at first light? Perhaps. Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe his airways were blocked with fluid and he never even took a breath. Maybe he breathed but wasn’t able to stand up and make his way to milk. Maybe Agnes was distracted by the ewe twin and stopped cleaning his slick wet wool and he died of hypothermia. Could I prevent the death of the ewe lamb before me now by making sure she was getting ample milk? Perhaps. Maybe. I don’t know. I saw her attempt to nurse here and there, but never once witnessed the tail movement that promised actual success. Not once. Her suckling was so casual, so half-hearted. I milked some colostrum from Agnes’ overly-generous udders and put it into a bottle to see if a different vehicle would get the gold more easily into her belly. She was not remotely interested. I realized then that I could make the colostrum available, I could try to assist with latching on, I could try to bully the lamb into eating, but I couldn’t make her swallow. I couldn’t make her want to live. I left her then, returning frequently to repeat the litany of interventions, and I waited for her to die.
Each time I checked on her, she seemed otherwise fine. She could stand, could walk, was reasonably alert. She was incredibly mellow, but not lethargic. After a time I guessed that she was getting something in her belly, probably just enough. She certainly wasn’t gorging herself. Days later, I watched and waited for that elusive whisking of the tail as she nursed, saw none, but could hear her swallowing. Oh. Maybe she never got the intrauterine memo about the wagging bit as a way to communicate the successful transfer of milk. It’s just not something she does. I realized then that she had been fine all along, that the “problems” were ones I had manufactured out of fear.
I spent the rest of that week recovering from the exhaustion of it all and the sadness of losing the first of this season’s lamb crop. We took to my bed, watching movies and eating chocolate and takeout lunch, breaking only to replenish the food, the movies, or to check on the lamb and other impending births. Slowly, the sadness and the paranoia left, the self-doubt and lack of confidence; a feeling of marginal competence returned.
And on Friday I found during a ewe-check that a small white nose and pair of front hooves had emerged from Clarisse’s backside. I called for my Apprentice Sheep Midwife to join me; she brought her 4-yr-old assistant who awoke early from his nap to join the excitement, and together we witnessed the slick and easy passage into this world of a pair of ram lambs. The first-born took to nursing like he was born to do it; the second was not far behind. I let loose a long, cleansing sigh and we left the momma and babes to their bonding.
Isadora has named the ewe lamb Angelina and she grows more vibrant every day, her wool practically glowing white, a Cormo trait she’s inherited from her father. The twin boys shall remain nameless, destined as they are for either breeding stock in someone else’s flock or our freezer. The Turks who join them in the pasture continue their whistling, jovial singing and revel in the increasing number of wooly backs they can roost upon.
And we await the fortunes of two more ewes who bear the promise of lambs this season.