Our sheep barn now resembles something between a maternity and a paediatrics ward. All that is missing is a counselling service and I am not sure who would be in greater need of that – the staff or the patients. In answer to some of the questions asked in comments on previous posts, here is the first part of a simplified version of the lambing season chez nous:
We have 280 ewes, about 220 of which are expected to give birth over a five week period. Apart from a bit of unqualified, immigrant labour (me), my husband will manage lambing entirely by himself.
Either the ewe will give birth by herself or she will need help. By ‘help’ I mean an up to the elbow grope inside the sheep in search of legs, a head or anything else that might be used as leverage, followed by a gentle manoeuvre and tug on said body part. The farmer might also go in search of blue string at this point, but let’s not get technical.
About one in three ewes will require midwifery services of some description. No, I am not the midwife – you’re not likely to see me putting my hand up a sheep’s vagina anytime soon.
You might think that after the difficulties of birth, life for a lamb would be a breeze. Not so. Our sheep are a race that is notorious for its bloody-mindedness concerning child rearing, and being a good mother does not come naturally to all.
Once the lamb or lambs (twins are very common) are safely out and onto the straw, it needs to be accepted by the ewe. If she stays and licks it, then all is usually well and they will both join the mother and baby group in a large pen. If she clears off to the other side of the sheep barn to snack on hay, then urgent damage control is required to save the lamb, especially if there is mucus over its mouth preventing it from taking its first breath.
After checking that the lamb can breathe and if the ewe is still reticent about motherhood, they will both be enclosed in a small pen to encourage bonding. Although this sounds romantic, in reality the ewe would prefer to see her lamb transformed instantaneously into chops rather than have to feed it herself. She will continually head butt her offspring each time it tries to approach her teats and would be quite happy to let it die in a corner.
For a farmer, this situation is about as desirable as running over your own foot with a tractor. I’ll tell you why in Part II.