No matter how small or, I think, how large your flock might be, lambing season is excitement. Especially with some of the lesser breeds of sheep, where you get colors and horns and personalities, you look forward to the result of the grab into the genetic bag. The first question answered is always, Ram or Ewe? (You root for the girls because an excess of boys in the flock can be a management problem.) You like them to be biggish, of course. With Jacob Sheep, you assess their pattern of spotting. You feel around for the first hints of horns: two or four? You like to see that their mothers have groomed them after birth, and taken over the matter of mothering from the first moment. No shepherd welcomes the arrival of a “bottle lamb.” Cute as it is to have a lamb in the kitchen suckling from a baby bottle of warm formula, it’s exhausting (every two hours for the first couple of weeks), expensive, and in the end results in a sheep that is never quite part of the flock.
So it was not with glad hearts that we saw what was going on in the lambing pen on Wednesday evening. I came home from a meeting in town to find Richard sitting at the table with a lamb in his lap. It was a tiny ram lamb, beautifully marked, trembling with cold and hunger. He was clean and dry, meaning someone in the flock had dressed the goop of birth from him. One of our ewes had begun the process of mothering.
There is a mysterious wisdom in a flock of sheep. They know things right off that it might take us a day or two to understand. Of course we mixed a bottle of lamb milk replacer and fed the little fella. Then we headed down to the sheepfold with him. I figured to assert myself regarding his mother’s role in this matter.
It wasn’t too difficult to work out which ewe had just lambed. You lift tails and take a look for evidence. We penned the guilty party with her lamb. The battle that followed was impressive. That ewe was not letting that lamb next to her. She would let me express milk from her udder (not very happily, but nevertheless), but she would not have the little ram approach her. She butted. She trampled. She bellowed her displeasure. All the rest of the flock stood by and watched with… what? Interest? At last I gave up and took him back to the kitchen. She was going to kill him if we insisted.
She knew, which I did not on that evening, that it was a poor investment to give energy to the rearing of a lamb who was going to die sooner or later.
We set him up in a box of towels in front of the woodstove. I wiped some crust from his eyes (that should have been a clue to me), and prepared to start the endless round of baby feedings. I set the alarm clocks for 2-hour intervals. Quite honestly, I wanted to weep at the prospect. But if you have a heartbeat, you want that lamb to live.
During the night he got out of his box a couple of times and tumbled into the pile of firewood. He clattered into the kitchen and knocked over some bottles. We moved him into the bathroom with a small heater and put a jacket over the box to keep him inside overnight.
We started calling him Soupҫon because he was such a little bit, barely four pounds.
What we began to notice (dumb humans) was that Soupҫon was running into a lot of things. He wobbled around on his little lamby legs in a strange, jerky way (maybe he was expecting something to clobber him with each step). He spent long periods in front of the white tile wall, simply looking at it.
He was pretty much blind. Though he was obviously drawn to the white wall, so apparently had some notion of light and dark, he didn’t detect motion at all. If we picked him up he opened his mouth for the bottle, but he didn’t see it coming and couldn’t find it unless we steered it to his lips.
So today we put little Soupҫon out of his discomfort. We cleaned off his eyes one more time, and let him stand in the sun for a few minutes before dispatching him.
Notice how he holds his head? He holds it a little too high. Unsighted humans often do the same thing. I’ve often wondered if it was to put their hearing in a prime position to pick up clues. Compare him to this lamb, Switch,
who has been successfully suckling off two ewes in the flock, weird as that might seem.
Here is a closer look at one of the problems Soupҫon came with.
It’s called Split Upper Eyelid Defect, and can occur in polycerate breeds: sheep with more than two horns. This is a fairly severe example, and accounts for the continuing mattering of his eyes. It must have been uncomfortable, and I’m sorry I let him go three days before we made it better. On the other hand, it was three days in which he was warm and fed. The fate of a rejected lamb, if left in the flock, isn’t pleasant. If it tries to force itself on its mother, it is met with violent tossing. It might try to suckle off other ewes, but that’s usually not successful, either. The lamb goes hungry and cold until it collapses.
It’s a particularly unhappy outcome, to have to kill a newborn lamb. But, you know, it’s a fact of life on a farm, that death is part of the deal. Small though he was, we turned the tiny carcass into soup stock this afternoon. It would have seemed a greater bad thing to waste him for no good reason. Usually we do not eat the children, but in this case it seemed prudent to make use of that Soupҫon of lamb.