It was a freezing cold morning in early January when Art woke me with the news.
“We have a lamb,” he said.
We were afraid of this – we expected the lambs to arrive early this year, but we hoped we’d sneak through this cold spell before they did.
It was ten degrees below zero. I could see them from the kitchen window – the
all-white ewe standing apart from the others with her all-black lamb standing beside her.
The world outside was covered in ice.
I went out to find the ewe was ignoring her lamb. Art had just given them their day’s ration of hay– it is always mayhem when the sheep are fed in the morning– they move from hay pile to hay pile, as if someone else’s pile might be preferable to one’s own, when all of it comes from the same hay bale. (It was sheep who invented the idiom, “The grass is always greener…”) The poor little lambs try to keep up with their moms but are soon confused. The big kids get annoyed with them and bump them around, while their moms are busy taste-testing and doing their little dance.
I picked up the lamb and put my finger in its mouth – cold. She was getting that hunched look—also not a good sign. A lamb needs to nurse to maintain its body heat; if it feels cold, that’s a sure sign it’s not nursing. I tucked her under my arm and carried her over the paddock fence and across the ice to the house as she wailed. A lamb’s cry is loud enough to be heard from a mile away, and has evolved to be heart breaking. After a minute or two in front of the woodstove she quieted down and went to sleep.
I let her warm up and then brought her back out to the barn. Art and I tried to get the ewe and her lamb into the lambing pen. A ewe will hear her lamb crying from inside the pen and will usually follow. But this ewe just stood there, half in, half out.
“She needs hay,” I said.
Then a different ewe, Ewelysses, barged into the pen and sniffed the lamb like it were her own. She went out again, then came back, responding to the lamb’s cry as only a mother ewe should.
“Wait! That’s not her lamb!” Ewelysses was taking a greater interest in the lamb than the lamb’s own mother. Ewelysses moved around restlessly. Then she lay down in a far corner of the barn, leaning against the wall.
“She’s going into labor,” I said. Otherwise, she would not be lying down at mealtime, uninterested in her breakfast.
She got up and ambled into the lambing pen.
She started breathing heavily. She curled her upper lip, making an equine grimace, lifting up her chin. She squirmed and shifted her weight from side to side. She got up, turned in a circle, then lay down again. She began to push, groaning slightly.
I had seen ewes give birth before, and it usually seemed so easy. This time it seemed painful. I looked at Ewelysses’ backside – and saw the lamb’s head and a forepaw emerge.
The ewe continued to strain.
“I need to see the other foot.” I walked around to get a better look. Then Ewelysses stood up. She swung around. The lamb was half emerged now, hanging down between the ewe’s hindlegs, sheathed in an ochre-colored mucus. I could see both forelegs and the head. Ewelysses circled around and around, the lamb swinging from her as in a game of airplane. It was odd—as if the ewe were trying to shake the fetus loose. The lamb’s head knocked against the wall. Then it slipped free, landing on the floor like a slimy fish on dry ground.
Ewelysses immediately went to work licking the lamb clean. The lamb’s head perked up, its eyes opened, and it gave a little cry.
It was very convenient that Ewelysses gave birth right there in the lambing pen.
The only problem was, we needed the pen for the other lamb and her mom. That lamb was still not nursing. She wandered around – all black with splashes of white on her face like spilled milk—a little lost lamb. I saw her wander outside and curl up on the ice to take a nap.
It was a forlorn sight. I picked her up and brought her back inside the house. As I took off my boots, the lamb stumbled – her hooves sliding across the wood floor – into the closet by the front door, where she settled down. She looked up at me and cocked her head, her ears flopped over like a puppy’s ears.
“Not there,” I said, and put her next to the stove.
Meanwhile, Art needed to build a second lambing pen. He went into town to get pallets and eyelets, and quickly constructed a solid new pen. He needed to drag the ewe on her back into the new pen, then righted her onto her side. I put the lamb onto the ewe’s nipple, and she drank. She drank and drank and drank.
Ewelysses, meanwhile, continued to lick clean her lamb. I watched as the yellowish bundle of wool and bones tried to stand up – first straightening out his hindlegs, then pitching forward as he unfolded his forelegs and swiveled around, before collapsing back into the straw.
Ewelysses doted on her lamb. She stood up for it to nurse; when it was lying down, she stood over it and nudged it, insisting that it get up and nurse, like a mother coaxing a child to eat his spinach. Later, when I went out to check on them in the evening, I saw the lamb shivering as it slept beside her; Ewelysses moved closer and pressed her body against him. I saw the lamb climb up onto her back to nest on her fluffy wool fleece. That is how they’ll sleep together during a cold winter night.
Both of the lambs were doing fine. But we worried. Temperatures were expected to fall to twenty-below that night. We had never had new lambs arrive in weather like that. Would they make it through the night?