J brought a wee new-born lamb home with him this morning. Knowing from experience how much milk the lamb would be getting through, he drove home towing the milk tanker. Yes, really!
The lamb’s mother, that is – in the trailer.
Tilly was so excited: she just loves a little black lamb to lick clean!
And then – once cleaned up, Tilly returns to her place, stretched out under Jonathan’s legs, and Tiny is left to fall asleep as I knit.
I’ll now pass you over to Jonathan for him to give you the full story –
Yesterday, in the midst of all that counting and searching, searching and counting, I’d noticed that Isla – one of Foss’s Three Little Maids, had a really large udder, so big (though not un-naturally swollen or inflamed) that she was walking awkwardly. “Oh aye“, I thought: “she’ll be lambing tomorrow morning”.
This morning, she didn’t turned up for ‘breakfast time’. It wasn’t difficult to find her – she was just a couple of hundred metres away, almost in plain view. But perched up on a grassy ledge, five metres or so above the road, she certainly wasn’t easy to get to! She was lying down, as when a sheep chews the cud. She didn’t get up as I approached, though – which I would expect as an instinctive reaction ; and there was something about her eyes that seemed to be appealing for help.
A large black head was sticking out below her tail. No front hooves. With mucous covering gone, and cold to the touch, I didn’t hold out much hope. Clearly, she’d been like this for some hours. Our first sheep arrived almost eight years ago, since when we’ve raised about 120 lambs – yet this would be the first time I’d ever had to intervene in a lambing.
Hebrideans, being a relatively primitive breed, generally produce just one or two lambs (let’s face it, even modern commercial sheep come equipped with just two teats), but give birth easily, outdoors, without the need for lambing sheds and night-watching shepherds. Even so, I always prepare for lambing season by ensuring I have a full stock of the necessary equipment and supplies – even if I never use them, and at this time of year I always have them ready in the back of the van.
I ran back to the croft store to get the van, and parked it as close to Isla as I could get. Prepped up – as seen on TV!, I inserted my fingers past the lambs head and felt for the hooves: one was easy to pull forward, the other was still stuck in the pelvic opening – but I managed it. Isla was clearly exhausted already, and wasn’t offering much help, but with encouragement and pulling from me, out came the lamb: a boy-lamb, absolutely huge, and as I’d already accepted, long dead.
I presented Isla with her dead lamb to lick and to come to an understanding. As she rested her head on the wet body, softly bleating, I felt such sadness for her. I rested my head against hers and shared her loss.
I needed to feed other animals, so I left them alone for a while, returning later to check Isla was okay, and to remove the body. When I returned, she was standing still, tail lifted, placenta bulging out: the poor girl was too tired to expel it, so I helped. Then a thought struck: Might there be second lamb?. I prepped again, and gently investigated. My hands are too big to reach far, but I could feel a pair of hooves correctly presented ahead, and so I quickly grabbed and pulled: and with scarce any effort at all, there was a lovely – but very small – girl-lamb.
Today the weather had reverted to cold wind and rain, and this little grassy ledge was exposed – and a precarious venue for a wobbly little lamb’s first steps. I needed to get some parcels posted, so made myself presentable, and on return from the Post Office just 15 minutes later, I found the lamb teetering at the edge of the rock face.
I stayed with them to see how the two were bonding. They weren’t. Isla was tired, but the wee lamb was very weak and lacking in the drive needed to find her mum’s udder and persist until she got a good dose of colostrum. No time to lose: I tipped up Isla and milked her until the thick and sticky, green-yellow colostrum was spurting from both sides, and then attached the lamb to the nipples, as that’s when instinct kicks-in for both mum and babe. But the lamb didn’t seem to get the idea, and despite repeated attempts, I just couldn’t get the feeding started – and the lamb was already showing signs of hypothermia.
Already, then, it was looking like we were going to have a bottle-baby or pet lamb, and yet this young ewe would be at risk of contracting mastitis, or at least failing to develop her mothering skills. We don’t mind the cost and effort of one or two bottle-fed lambs each year, but it is the loss – in effect – of a breeding ewe which would be much less tolerable. But then I’d remembered what Denise and I agreed last year: we’d try and keep mother and lamb together, ideally using only the mother’s own milk to feed the lamb.
I drove back to the steading, hitched up the trailer, and then returned to roadside at the foot of the rock face. Climbing back up the ledge carrying first Isla (all 50kg or so of her!) down the rocks to the trailer, and then her lamb.
Back at home, over coffee and toast, Denise and I discussed our modus operandum. The trailer would be the lambing pen. We’d milk Isla for the colostrum, and feed it to Tiny (D’s choice of name!) – initially with a 10ml plastic syringe, a few ml every few seconds, checking that each mouthful was swallowed before pressing the plunger again. (We’re very wary of tube-feeding a lamb so small and weak.)
That’s what we’ve been doing all day, but as night fell and Tiny began to shiver from the cold, we’ve put her in the store under a heat lamp: we’ll return her to her mum tomorrow, and we’ll try and keep them together throughout the day.
It’s time-consuming and delicate work, but so rewarding!