Written onMarch 01 , 2011
It’s 5:20 a.m. and a pale glimmer of dawn shows in the sky above the Northfield Range. I can just make out the ghosts of the sheep’s breath in the open doorway of the shed, and their dark forms nestled in the deep straw. They hear me coming and rise, grunting, their girths almost impossibly huge this late in March. Two of my 23 pregnant ewes gave birth the day before and the new lambs—two sets of twins—are cuddled close to the warmth of their mother’s bodies.
My eyes have now fully adjusted to the dark, so I walk quietly among the expectant flock, looking for signs of labor. If a ewe has carved a nest in the hay away from the others, is not interested in eating, is straining, or has discharge from her vagina, chances are she is preparing to go into labor, although often she will give no sign at all, which is one of the many reasons why I find shepherding both humbling and fascinating: no matter how long you do it, you will have never seen it all.
My oldest ewe, Shy Girl, is clearly in labor in one corner of the shed. She has borne twins or triplets each year for nine years now, and I’ve not yet had to help her, but I always like to make sure things are on track. I get behind her and see a good sign: a perfect presentation of the lamb’s nose nestled above its two pale pointed hoofs. (If you don’t see the nose, or see only one foot, this is an indication that the lamb isn’t coming forward in the easiest way for the ewe to deliver.) I settle in on the steps to wait. A delivery can be as quick as 10 minutes but it can also take as long as two hours. If the ewe’s water has broken and the lamb doesn’t progress on its own after an hour, I am inclined to reach a hand in and help. Sometimes it’s as simple as easing a very large ram lamb’s horn buds around the pubic bone, and sometimes it’s much more complicated. Lambing—because there are usually twins, and sometimes triplets, involved, and because lambs are quite delicate at birth—is generally considered a trickier business than the calving of cows, which is why many shepherds choose to be present.
A few minutes later, Shy Girl’s first lamb, a sturdy white ram, is born and already trying to get to its feet. Icelandic lambs are said to be especially vigorous, given 1,400 years of nearly wild evolution in the spartan hills of Iceland, and I often see the first one up and nursing within four minutes of it taking its first breath. If everything goes this smoothly, my job is to make sure the lamb’s nostrils and airway are clear of any membrane from the birth sac, to trim and tip the umbilical cord in iodine, and to make sure the new babe gets its first drink of that magical, antibody-rich milk called colostrum as soon as possible.
All is well—Shy Girl is nickering to and licking her new arrival, stimulating it to stand and nurse—so I decide to retreat to the house and make a cup of tea while number two is on the way. Lambing season is all about stamina and pacing oneself. I know shepherds who sleep in the barn for a month or check on their flock multiple times in the night; certainly everyone has their way. I try to keep things simple. I breed my sheep so that they lamb when it’s not quite so cold, letting nature help me reduce the odds of a lamb not surviving. I also let my ewes lamb where they instinctively feel they need to—some wander out of the three-sided shed and lamb in the pasture, while others nestle into the darkest corner of the shed. (The paddock is guarded from coyotes by our llama and has good fencing, and so far we’ve not had predators bother the lambs there.) If one is having trouble, either in labor or later, I have lambing jugs I can use. These small pens are useful for getting a nervous mother to bond with her lamb, or for attending to a sick ewe or lamb. But in general I try not to use them, partly because I’m lazy and would rather do fewer rounds of watering and feeding, and partly because I prefer instead to be able to let the flock manage itself as naturally as possible. During lambing season I check the barn around 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., and only get up in between if I have a hunch there might be a problem.
Which is the case as soon as I return to the lambing shed with my mug of tea. Russett, a magnificent butterscotch and silver ewe, has taken advantage of the fact that Shy Girl is preoccupied with delivering number two—she is on the ground now, her sides heaving—and has moved in to “steal’” her firstborn. Russett is licking and calling to the little wobbly fellow and all but holding it up to her own teat with a forefoot. A ewe who is close to giving birth can have such a strong hormonal cocktail of mothering instinct running in her blood that she will become a kidnapper, and her milk will come in early as a result. A lamb more than a few hours old will likely ignore her attentions, but this one isn’t sure who his mother is yet. In fact, his newborn brain is quickly memorizing Russett’s distinct scent and voice, and he could soon be bonded to her.
Luckily I am on to Russett. She had done this to Shy Girl before, with disastrous results. A few years before, when she stole one of Shy Girl’s lambs, I left it with her. But sadly, when Russett had her own twins in the night two days later, the much larger, adopted lamb was getting most of her milk, and as a result the newborn twins were severely chilled when I found them. One did not survive. So this time I put Shy Girl and both her lambs in a small pen in the barn, away from Russett. What a commotion Russett went on to make, all that day, calling for “her” lamb! Shy Girl was taking care of him, though, and I knew Russett would calm down as soon as she gave birth. Or so I thought.
That night, the little ram, who I called Flop because one of his ears flopped down over his eye, must have heard Russett calling to him from the shed, got confused, and squeezed through a crack in the lambing jug. When I checked the barn around midnight he was nowhere to be found. I searched the entire barn and finally found him curled up in a ball in the bottom of an old bookshelf that was leaning against the far wall. The inside of his mouth felt cold and wet, like snow. I carried his limp form inside and put him in a box under a heat lamp near the woodstove. Luckily, he came around quickly, and by morning was sucking from a bottle.
Most often, when we have a lamb that needs to be brought to life in the kitchen, we can take it back to the barn and its mother will take over from there. Icelandics are known for their very strong mothering instincts. Over the years we’ve had just one true bottle baby, Bunny (born on Easter), whose mother—a flighty teenager that was in denial that she had ever been pregnant—would not take her back. Bottle feeding is something I try to avoid, again because I’m a lazy farmer who resists inputs like milk replacer or extra work like warming up bottles, and also because I believe that there’s no substitute for mother’s milk and the mother’s warm bulk at night. However, I do milk one or two of the first ewes to lamb and put their colostrum in the freezer for emergencies, and I don’t hesitate to feed a lamb for a few days, even getting up every two hours in the night, if it will save its life.
Flop turned out to be an odd case. He never became a true bottle baby, but because of his unusual arrival into the world he ended up with a democratic approach to family life. He was what is called a “bum lamb,” sneaking up to any udder he saw and bumming a sip or two of milk, usually from behind before the ewe could tell he was an imposter and butt him away. Both Russett and Shy Girl seemed more receptive to him, but at this point he surely didn’t know who his mother was, or even whether he was sheep or human; whenever he saw one of us, he would run over, squeeze under the fence, and follow us around. If one of the girls sat down with him, he would suck on her sleeves and pant legs, ever hopeful. Sometimes we’d give him a bottle because he was such a pathetic, runty thing, but he knew the rubber nipple wasn’t the real thing and quickly lost interest.
We spoiled Flop. He went to preschool with Wren one day. Willow dressed him up in baby clothes. He was showered with love. He was the only ram we’ve ever raised that didn’t get sold for breedstock (much too runty) or sent to the butcher (too beloved). I tell my ewes that if they want their boy babies to live long lives they have to give birth to spectacular studs or adorable runts, nothing in between. Luckily for us, trying to make a living at this business, we don’t have too many on the runty end of the spectrum.
By late April all the lambs are born, charging around the pasture in packs like a gang of street urchins, or climbing on their mothers’ backs and nibbling on their ears when they lie down to rest. Within a week of being born the lambs are also nibbling on the first spring shoots of grass. Soon the whole flock will start a careful, intensive rotation through the lush spring pastures, their muzzles yellow with dandelion pollen.
For me, the greatest joy of being a shepherd is sitting in the field surrounded by the flock, hearing the sound of their chewing. For 10 years now they have moved through the steep pastures of our hill farm, stimulating the grasses, and fertilizing the soil. The change in organic matter, grass species diversity, and density of forage here has been truly dramatic. At the end of the day we are grass farmers first and foremost, and we raise the sheep because we know they are our best tool for building the health of our land. And besides, they make us happy.
Helen Whybrow raises purebred Icelandic sheep and organic high-bush blueberries with her family at Knoll Farm in Fayston.
Photo by Helen Whybrow