Winter: It was 24 degrees the morning No. 28 was born. Sleet pellets bounced off my old Carhartt jacket and the sky was slate gray when I headed out on my early morning rounds. The two cups of hot coffee helped little in warding off the chill wind as I rushed through my outdoor chores before reaching the relative warmth of the barn.
Entering a barn during lambing season involves careful observation: Who is soon to lamb, and is anyone showing signs of a distressed labor? Who has lambed already, and are all lambs up and nursing? The experienced mother will keep close track of her offspring, protecting them from the scrum of other sheep, but a first-time mother is easily unnerved and will often rush outside without her newborns, trailing the afterbirth, oblivious to what is expected of her in this new role in life.
On this particular morning, January 6th, a handful of fresh faces greeted me — the most exciting, twins born to our favorite ewe, No. 1333. No. 1333 is a large, handsome ewe who is uncommonly friendly, always standing still to receive a good scratching. As in the previous lambing season, she had just given birth to a male and a female. Much to our disappointment, she had lost the last year’s ewe lamb in a freak accident. We were anxious that nothing go wrong this time.
Later in the day, we eartagged No. 28 and her twin, 29. Eventually, we’d finish the season with 44 lambs, but in this first week of the year, lambing was just getting started. Other than the identifying numbers, the twins were soon indistinguishable from the mass of other lambs, running in and out of the larger flock, occasionally pummeling the udders of their moms.
Spring: Unlike the long and devastating drought of the previous year, this winter and spring’s rains had created a lush growth by April. It became a daily occurrence for us to remark on the change in landscape, as the unnatural browns gave way to the deepest greens. The lambs and ewes were turned out on new grass and thrived. For hours on end we’d watch the youngsters, tumbling about in soft grass at play, interrupted only by a mother’s bleat or a long, sun-warmed nap. Throughout the season, the inevitable deaths occurred: the lamb born at night that managed to roll outside the barn and die from the elements; the one I had to dispatch mercifully after it was stepped on by the flock and broke its back.
Summer: Mild temperatures and steady rain, a record hay crop, and modest garden success provided the backdrop as our little No. 28 transformed into a hardy, large-framed weanling. In June we separated the babies from their mothers. For the next few days, the moms would crowd one gate, the lambs another, fifty yards between them, and bleat. Loudly. Day and night. Another couple of days and the moms turned their attention back to the grass; a couple more and the lambs finally followed suit. Weaning accomplished, quiet restored.
Fall: It was an October evening during the late Indian summer, as we headed out to a dinner with friends, that we spotted a lamb lying down in the tall grass of the bottom pasture, noticeable by its isolation from the flock. We stopped the car and walked out to the field. There she was, No. 28, head up, alert, but unmoving.
Sheep are prey animals. They don’t lie down and stay down until they’re physically unable to go anymore. A quick check of the lamb’s gums revealed an unhealthy lack of color. Seemingly overnight, she had lost all of her body fat. We grabbed a wheelbarrow, put her in for the ride, and I pushed her up the long hill to the barn. We secured her in a stall and went on to dinner.
Over the next several days, we treated her with two different types of wormers. For us, worming is an infrequent occurrence. All sheep have some internal parasites, but we select and cull based on an individual sheep’s ability to carry a small enough “worm load” that she thrives without repeated use of parasiticides.
Each morning, we’d bring a bucket of warm water and mild soap to the barn and sponge off the accumulated scouring (diarrhea) from No. 28’s rear legs. After the second wormer was administered, the feces became solid, well formed — not what you’d expect from a lamb with a heavy parasite load. At that point we began to suspect something else was at work, since No. 28 remained alert, yet still unable to stand.
The day before we found her lying in the lower field, our 200-pound ram had managed to breach a fence and spend the night with our ewe lambs. Our new working hypothesis was that the ram had attempted to breed the developing young ewe and caused some nerve damage.
Having ascertained that her back was not broken, we rigged up a makeshift sling of saddle girths in hopes of retraining No. 28 to stand. For the next three days, we placed her in the sling three times a day with her feet just touching the ground. We would exercise each leg, moving it forward and backward, side to side. Through all of this, the ewe lamb continued to have a healthy appetite. We were committed to nursing her as long as the possibility of recovery still existed. But recovery was not to be.
On the morning of the fourth day, when I entered the barn, No. 28 was lying upright, but her head was extended forward onto the hay. This is never a good sign, but we were both loathe to give up on her too soon. We were anxious to preserve both her genetics and her life. She remained a calm, affectionate lamb, seemingly glad to have you stroke her head even in her distress.
Leaving the barn, I headed out to finish bush-hogging an upper pasture. We had a cold front coming in around midday and were expecting rain. It was a few hours before I made my noonday hospital visit to the patient. This time, when I approached, her neck was stretched out in the hay, her body limp, like a balloon with a slow leak. Her eyes still followed me, but without the usual spark. This was an act in a play that we had seen too many times. She was going to die — it was now just a matter of when.
I walked slowly back to the house. I picked up my 30-30 and returned to the barn. The lamb’s labored breathing was audible when I opened the stall gate. I raised the rifle and shot her between and just above both watching eyes. She died instantly.
Outside, the cold rain began to fall on the valley. I went back to the house, gun in my hand, breathing in the smell of the rain, of this season, aware of this rhythm, this awful beauty in the dying of the year. But I continued to look ahead, on another cold day in early January, to when the next lambing season begins on our farm, always in hope and sometimes in death.
Reading this weekend: The Art of Loading Brush: new agrarian writings, by Wendell Berry. And, The Lean Farm: how to minimize waste, increase efficiency, and maximize value and profits with less work, by Ben Hartman. Both, seemingly at odds with each other upon first glance.