Saturday, 19 April 2014

Keep Calm & Carry On

Have you ever wondered how a sheep spends its day? Neither had I, and neither did I ever expect to find myself spending quality time sat on a deckchair watching the back end of a sheep through binoculars. Nevertheless, that's exactly what both of us have been doing this month. Thankfully all this ovine voyeurism has come to an end, a messy stressy end.

When you have just three ewes to be tupped (i.e. getting jiggy with the ram), things like crayon raddles (the successful ram's unsubtle calling card) and pregnancy scanning are luxury items, Unfortunately these are also the items you need if you're to have any idea whatsoever when your ewes might lamb. For us the lambing period is a six week window within which the ewes may or may not pop out a lamb or two or maybe three or heaven forbid four. We can't pen them into their little field shelter for the whole time so its to and fro, to and fro, watching and waiting for the telltale signs of the onset of lambing - restlessness, pawing the ground, curling back the lip, throwing back the head. Last year I think the stork delivered our three lambs because not one of Margo, Myfanwy or Babs displayed any one of these signs at any time. One day there was no lamb, the next day there was. Thus leaving us none the wiser as to the ins, and more importantly the outs, of lambing. This year we were determined to catch them in the act. Afterall, there is never any guarantee that problem free births one year mean problem free births the next year. Hence the deckchair and binoculars.

Babs foiled us yet again. "She doesn't look like she's anywhere near lambing, how about popping out for an hour for a quick pint." One pint became one and a half pints, as it does, so an hour became an hour and a half. On our return, there he was, sticky, yellow and wobbly getting an all over wash and blow dry from mum. The Rhos Yr Hafod is where we were when he was born so Rhos is his name.


A week later and Rhos was still a lone lamb with no one to play with, whilst Margo, always a large lady, looked about ready to explode. You don't have to go too far for advice on all things sheep related - we tried her on raspberry leaf tea (apparently it works for pregnant sheep as it does for pregnant women, and sheep are given dill to bring on lactation, though I'm not sure if that works for women as it does for sheep); we confirmed that her "titties" were sticking out at angles (I was reliably informed, together with appropriate hand gestures, that this is a dead cert indicator of birth within days); a frisky ram would mean ewes lambing within days of each other and a lazy ram would mean up to two weeks between births (we had no way of retrospectively assessing friskiness levels of the three potential fathers). The best advice, and the only advice we failed to heed in its entirety, was "keep calm, don't panic, have a cup of tea and wait".

Wednesday's false alarm that sent us scurrying for the lambing kit bucket, flask of coffee and sandwiches, was a yawn that looked like a lip curl.

Thursday's false alarm that sent me scurrying for the lambing kit bucket while cursing Dave for being at work, was a lip curl coupled with pawing and heaving that turned out to be a yawn and getting comfy in the sun.

On Friday there wasn't even so much as a false alarm and all we saw Margo do (close up through binoculars) was graze, snooze and occasionally throw a knowing smile in our direction.

Saturday passed in much the same way as Friday. Maybe she'd reabsorbed the lamb? Maybe she was just obese? Friends come round for dinner. We start cooking. Five minutes before the lamb steaks are ready (oh the irony!) I suggest one last evening check. Off to the field I go, expecting nothing, and there she is throwing her head back and lip curling like she means business! And judging by the hideous mess hanging out of her back end (also known as the water bag), she wasn't pretending this time. 

This is where things started to go wrong.

Ten days of being the only lamb in the flock had clearly turned Rhos into a spoiled little boy, and like all spoiled little boys he's greedy, naughty and wants to be the centre of attention. Auntie Margo bringing a rival lamb into the world was clearly not part of his plan, so he intervened. As Margo alternated between lying panting and staggering around, Rhos moved in and began suckling her. This was bad news. The first milk contains the all important colostrum through which the ewe passes on immunity and nourishing goodies to kick start her new born lamb. Rhos was stealing it. It certainly made him frisky, leaping about as he followed Margo, who by now had decided Rhos was her new lamb and began cleaning him. Trying to part the pair was causing stress. Running around mid birth is probably as bad for ewe and lamb as it is distressing to watch. By now an emergency call had been made to Simon up the road, who arrived minutes later armed with a bag of powdered colostrum for the yet to be born lamb and calming words for us. The best we could do was to give up, eat our rapidly cooling dinner and let nature take its course.

An hour later we head back out. I could see Margo lying prone in the field. I can see blood. Ever the pessimist I'm convinced she's dead, but we'd arrived bang on time and the poor old girl was simply giving birth! Unfortunately Rhos was still bothering her. He wouldn't leave her alone even as the newly emerged lamb lay by her back end. Now the risk was that Rhos would interfere with the mother-lamb bonding process. Our attempt to scare Rhos off caused Margo to leap up, breaking the umbilical cord between her and her lamb. We immediately realised our mistake and backed off, but fortunately this was enough to send Rhos scurrying back to his real mother, Babs, whose disciplining of her offspring had been notably absent up until now. Relief at seeing Margo beginning to lick her new lamb turned to worry as we could see the lamb fail to suckle. She butted Margo's flank, her leg, her belly, but never seemed to find a teat and hang on to it. We moved in with the bottle of warm made up colostrum, but the lamb wouldn't or couldn't suckle that either. We moved away again for fear of intervening in the cleaning process for too long. An hour later, still no sign of suckling. I now know that the cleaning process can take up to three hours, and only then may the ewe lick the lamb's bottom and so trigger proper suckling. I also now know that the colostrum can be fed up to 24 hours from birth and still be effective. But I didn't know that then and by now it was dark and the flashlight was distressing Margo, so all we could do was walk away and hope the lamb would make it through the night. I set the alarm for 6 a.m. - "if the lamb dies overnight it will be as dead at 7 a.m. as it is at 6 a.m. so why get up so early" said Dave. Harsh but true. I didn't sleep much that night. By 6:30 a.m., in pyjamas, dressing gown and wellies I was heading back to the field, heart beating fast, tears ready to roll. But there she was, white and fluffy just like her half-brother Alan last year, very wobbly but very much alive. The tears rolled anyway. By 9:30 a.m. she was suckling mum without a problem, and as you can see, Lulu is now a bonny little ewe lamb. 


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