And so it begins.
I’m not fully awake when I get up to turn off my alarm. Before 5:00am, I think it’s reasonable for a person to not be fully awake. Pulling on warm pants, an old down jacket, fleece-lined mittens with a hole in the left hand, and an old college friend’s hat that never got returned, I head out to the barn like most mornings.
March in Maine usually isn’t this cold, or at least that’s what I’ve been thinking the entire month. February and January were unusually cold, borderline brutal. March was an improvement, but it’s only ten degrees out this morning so it isn’t that big of an improvement. At least no wind today.
It’s pitch black, and I rely on memory and wishful thinking to find the light switches out in the barn. Three horses stand in a row in their stalls, waiting to be brought outside to a giant round bale which they will lazily eat all day. Only one of them is mine, though, so I go to the end of the row.
“Good morning, peanut!” I whisper to the mare. My mother, who is entering the barn behind me, scoffs at my use of the word peanut.
I put Crow’s halter on, but she’s young and we’ve only recently acquired her so when I do put it on, she lifts her head up higher than I can reach. A bad habit, particularly for her size: she’s a Shire mare, and she’s easily over 5’7” at her back. In the horse world, it’s measured in units called “hands,” but honestly, who cares. She’s tall. Taller than the other two horses.
Trudging out through the snow to let Crow loose in the pasture, I can see just the very beginning of daybreak. A gentle, lighter black is evident over the mountaintops across the field. I again reflect on how grateful I am that there’s no wind.
Back in the barn to finish up the rounds. There is a small flock of sheep in the back of the barn, just five fluffballs all baaing, ready to go outside and eat their fill as well. It strikes me how much food these creatures eat and how we really don’t have any legitimate reason to have them. I only think that for a split second, because then I realize how much I like being able to go out and talk with them, photograph them, smell their wonderful, warm wool…
I open their stall door and lead them to the back barn door. Counting them as they go, one, two, three, four… Four. Sometimes the stall door swings shut and traps the last sheep in the stall, typically they’re frantic and trying to reach their flock. I walk back to check on who it is, I wasn’t paying attention to who was already outside.
Our bottle baby from last year, Aurora, was in the stall, but she wasn’t frantic. In fact, she was laying down. I watched her quietly, and after a few minutes her entire body contracted and she put her nose up into the air. Well, I guess I’m going to be late to work today.
I watch her for a few more minutes as she gets up and stands, then lays down. I go in, looking at her vulva which is swollen but her water has not broken yet. There is time for a shower, at least.
I scurry inside to pour a cup of coffee, and check on what I have in my lamb kit. Probably should have done this last week, I think to myself, scolding myself. In the kit, I have one rubber glove, iodine in a spray bottle, surgical scissors, antiseptic, a towel, a thermometer on a string, and… “No lube.” I say out loud. Goddammit. Scott is already up in the kitchen. “Aurora is in labor.” I turn around to survey the kitchen.
“Do we have any not-tingly lube in the drawer?”
“There’s KY, I think.” He says, not batting an eye. I pour a cup of coffee, grab the KY from our bedside drawer, and head back outside to the barn.
Quietly, always quietly, I move the wooden bench from the other side of the barn to just outside of Aurora’s stall. I sit and watch. It’s been twenty five minutes since I was last out.
Her water has broken. She’s pushing. Not grinding her teeth, and not standing in a position that might indicate pain. She’s getting up, laying down, pacing. Normal behavior.
I sip my coffee. Last year was a terrible year for lambing here. We had five ewes give birth. Two of which required veterinarian assistance because I was too inexperienced to pull the lambs out of the mothers when they needed it, and we lost one of those lambs.
Earlier this winter, I had made solemn pacts with myself that this year would not be like that. So I watch Aurora. A few minutes later, I see a head. I see a head, and upon closer inspection, I see no feet.
I pace around. It’s just me and the sheep. No one to hold her, no one to tell me what I’m supposed to do. No one to hold my hand. I text a friend who has sheep asking for advice, but I already know what I have to do. I call my neighbor to see if she can help me get the lamb out, she gives the advice I already know, but doesn’t say she can come up. As my friend is texting me back, I begin trying to position Aurora so I can get the lamb out without her running away from me.
Which she does, promptly. She just walks away from me as I’m trying to get in there. Naturally. So in a moment of necessity, I grab a front foot and a back foot and flip her on her side. I apologize.
“This is going to be ok. I’m so sorry.” I say. At this point, the lamb’s tongue is hanging out and it isn’t breathing. It doesn’t occur to my brain that the lamb doesn’t need to be breathing because most likely the umbilical cord is still attached. This is where I mess up.
I take a step back to figure out how I’m going to do this without someone helping, willing myself to do this. I grab the glove, grab the little bottle of KY, and lube my hand up. The glove is a wrist-length glove and is useless. I take it off, re-lube my hand, and turn to Aurora.
The lamb starts gasping for air. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Now I have a time limit.
I have two minutes, maybe three to now get this lamb out. I can’t push it back in at this point to readjust, the only way is out. I try to gently ease my hand into the birth canal, but now I just have to do it. Delving in, I try to figure out where a leg is. Any leg. Just a leg. It’s so slippery and it’s still gasping. I find the crook of one leg and hook my finger around it, pulling it out. I’ve got a head and a leg. The lamb is rasping. I wait for the next contraction so I can pull it out Superman-style, waiting, and as it comes, I pull gently and she comes out.
I have a very, very brief moment of triumph and then begin rubbing the lamb. Rubbing vigorously, sticking straw in it’s nose, I hang it upside down and swing it, I rub it more.
Come on, baby, come on. COME ON.
Nothing works. It’s dead. It’s dead and I killed it.
I yell, “FUCK,” to the general audience of the barn and even the chickens shut up for a second. The barn door opens a moment later and Pogo, my neighbor with a decent sized flock of goats, walks in with Scott. I stand up, “It’s dead. I got it out, but it’s dead.” I’m crying.
Farmers don’t cry, this seems to be the general consensus. I cry, though. I am pissed off at myself and I am crying. Pogo just looks at me kindly, and says, “It does happen.” I wipe my face off with hands covered in blood and cervical fluid. “I know. Thank you so much for coming up. I really appreciate it.” This is the first time I met Pogo.
Scott is already inside, he knew as soon as I said, “It’s dead,” that he didn’t need to be out there. I am not overly receptive to sympathy in that it just makes me more upset, and he knows that.
Pogo leaves, and I go back in to sit with Aurora. She hasn’t gotten up, isn’t even looking at her lamb. She is exhausted. I offer her the bucket of warm sugar water but she just looks away, tired and probably in pain. I rub her forehead and cry, apologizing, “I’m so sorry. I screwed up. I’m so sorry, so so sorry.” She just looks at the wall next to me.
I scoop up the perfect little lamb, with the beautiful facial markings and delicate feet. Putting her in a blanket, I place her in the main run of the barn. I don’t know how we’re going to dispose of her, usually we would just bury her, but the ground is obviously frozen and under three feet of snow.
I look at Aurora one more time to make sure she’s not still contracting. Though she’s passed the placenta, she still looks uncomfortable. Walking inside, I feel completely defeated. And angry.
I wash my hands and arms up to the elbows, get clean clothes on, and get ready to head to work. William is in the kitchen, and he asks me about the lamb. I thank my lucky stars that I always tell him that sometimes lambs don’t make it and that’s how it goes, because I have to tell him that this morning. He doesn’t react significantly. I can’t tell if I think that’s a good thing or a bad thing, or just a thing a kid living on a farm would do.
On my way to work, I wonder, Did I act properly? Did I act quickly enough? Was there anything I could have done better? How could I have done better to revive the lamb? Am I cut out for this?
After a few days of meditating on these questions and seriously doubting my abilities, I start coming around to some conclusions.
Firstly, this was a first-time mother. First-time mothers notoriously struggle with giving birth. Secondly, this sheep was the daughter of a non-mother who had very little experience in what mothering truly looked like.
Thirdly, I was quick. I let her progress in the way a normal sheep should have progressed and as soon as I saw there were no feet coming, I did what I could. The span of time between when the head came out and when I pulled that lamb out was about three minutes. For a brand new mother, her cervix was very tight and of course one must pull with contractions. That being said, I did what I needed to do.
I still beat myself up over it, but my rational brain took over once I stopped crying.
Several days later, Maisie gave birth.
The first two sheep I ever bought were culls from another shepherd’s flock. Of course, this is nearly always a bad move. Legitimate shepherds cull members of their flock when they fail to meet certain criteria. In this case, I acquired an older ewe with a very saggy udder and a six-month-old lamb with messed up horns.
The ewe was big. She had a dark face and dark gray wool, and would stomp her feet and lower her head whenever a person would come near. It took me weeks upon weeks to gain her trust enough to get within an arms length of her, and that was only because I fed her too much grain. Bribery.
We named her Maisie for no particular reason, and she soon earned the name Crazy Miss Maisie after she headbutted my then-three-year-old son in the butt, tossing him a few feet. She didn’t intend to hurt him, just to get him away. If she’d intended to hurt him, she could have.
As time went on, we acquired more sheep, and she became the distinct leader. Over three years, she never got any friendlier. However, she turned out to be an extraordinary mother. She would count her lambs if she had more than one, and knew how to revive an unconscious newborn. She ushered the lambs to her udder and grunted in frustration when anyone would handle them. She always birthed twins, lively and strong. Her saggy udder turned out to be a blessing in disguise; it was easily accessible through her wool for her lambs and she never ran out of milk. Her genetics were invaluable to us.
After Aurora gave birth to her lamb, I knew that the rest would follow shortly, most likely within the week. We separated Maisie and Cecilia, the other two pregnant sheep, into a clean stall so that they would not be outside when they began to labor.
Sheep like to nest, like most animals, before labor. They are easily monitored in a stall; for example, when a sheep is in the early stages of labor, they will stop eating. They will rest a lot. At that point, you have between four and six hours until the true labor begins.
Depending on the morning, I do chores around 5:00am. This morning, however, I slept in just slightly too late so instead of doing chores before my shower and breakfast for William, I did them twenty minutes before I left. This turned out quite well, because by the time I got out there, Maisie was in the beginning stages of late-stage labor.
To my absolute shock, the same thing happened to Maisie that had happened to Aurora. Lamb came face-first, no feet. I jumped on it and just lubed my hand up and grabbed that little lamb. I was not going to lose this one, by hook or by crook.
When I got her out, she wasn’t breathing. I rubbed her viciously. I picked her up by her back legs and swung her in an arc and put her down on the ground, shoving my finger in her mouth and her nose. She began to gasp and suck air in, finally. The entire time Maisie was pawing the lamb, grunting in panic, knowing that she was dying. Simultaneously, Maisie was in labor with the second lamb. She always twinned.
The little girl was weak, hardly moving, I kept rubbing her. Losing my patience and not wanting to lose the other lamb, I just assisted Maisie with the second one as soon as the head poked out. The little ram, as it turned out, was much more voracious and ready to go.
Both eventually came to. For the whole ordeal, Maisie was allowing me to help. I’ve scarcely touched the sheep because she has always been so aggressive in the several years of owning her, but she allowed my help during this. As soon as both lambs were up and moving, she wanted me out.
The lambs still looked weak, and that made me nervous. So I used some of our powdered colostrum and gave each of them about 6cc’s of it, just to make sure they had the energy. This truly perked them up, because soon they were up and bonding with their mother and drinking and getting firmer on their feet. They were really making it. I said a silent thank you to the lambing goddess and left for work, more triumphant this time.
Here are some photos of the lambs, the first are from my phone so excuse the quality, while the last three are several days after they were born.