Cats and Books

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Baby Be Mine

It's lambing time again – cue lack of sleep, the amazing range of birthing and mothering problems and, of course, cute lambs.  Although, to put it into context, we are only lambing four ewes, so far less chance of things going wrong.  Surely no chance of something new and wacky...

Ewe number five... Cilla is not pregnant, she is just old.  In reality, Cilla was born old, but now she definitely has a lot of years under her fleece.  She's an amiable old baggage with a history of being lamb-tolerant, whereas most nursing ewes will vigorously discourage other lambs.  In previous years we have had the Mama flock, off grazing and getting some peace from the lambs, with Cilla minding the lamb flock, following on behind at a leisurely pace until the moment of frantic baaing for the milk bar.  So we put her in with the pregnant ewes because as her year count has gone up, her tooth-count has hit zero and she needs feed supplements over winter and spring – so much easier to include her with the ones already getting extra.

The real complication this year is that when the first lamb was born, my other half was away, so it was just me dealing with Treacle Pie, one of our first-time mothers. The actual birth was perfectly smooth, lamb cleaned up and suckling, and Aunty Cilla watching over everything, even making the little coughing, whickering noise that ewes use to say hello to the new-born.

Then it all went a bit pear-shaped.  Treacle Pie was having twins and once number two was out, it was obvious that Cilla was doing more than just keeping a watchful eye on the beginner.  She had decided that it was her lamb and Treacle Pie was so busy fending off the cradle-snatcher that she was abandoning the second lamb.  This is a very important time for the lambs – bonding with mum, learning to stand, learning to suckle, and getting that vital first belly-full of milk (technically colostrum) loaded with antibodies from mum to help kick-start the immune system, and growth factors to promote gut development.  This is the lamb's Olympic hurdle race final – one chance for a medal, no prizes for missing a hurdle, no re-run.

Treacle Pie and Cilla - I'm sure this one is mine.

Our Soay ewes generally take themselves away from the rest of the flock to give birth, and keep their distance for the first couple of days – the essential bonding period where lamb learns who mum is and vice-versa.  Treacle Pie didn't.
We have seen something similar with pregnant ewes close to giving birth – someone else's lamb arrives and all the cues of sound and scent gets them confused enough that they think it must be theirs.  A few years ago we had three lamb on the same day and number one set off the other two – spinning on the spot to find their lamb, and we finally had three ewes chasing the very confused lamb around the field to claim it.  In the end, we managed to get mother and lamb penned inside a ring of hurdles and blankets draped over to break the line of sight – that took two of us and a lot of time.

Now, Cilla hasn't had a lamb for a few years – she is just too old and another pregnancy would put too much strain on both her, and us, to maintain the right levels of feed and general support.  Even so, she decided that the miracle had happened.  A lamb, all hers, and without all that aggro of pregnancy and giving birth...

With two people, it would have been easy to separate lamb and wannabe-mother.  On my own... Cilla is old, but seriously determined.  I needed two hands to grab her and haul her off, at least another hand to pick up the abandoned lamb, and a further hand with a very long arm to shut gates...

I caught Cilla – imagine the equivalent of water-skiing on grass as she dragged me along in spite of digging my heels in.  Cilla is knee-high and that gives her serious advantage in a tugging match.

The other side of the solution was to coax Treacle Pie into an enclosure of hurdles.  The trouble is, she knows what that means – worming, vaccinations, all manner of unpleasant or undignified treatment that no self-respecting ewe will tolerate.

It took a program of deception, sheep psychology and serious shoving.  I opened a gate to an empty field, and then Treacle Pie was prepared to go into the hurdle enclosure, because there was a clear exit on the far side.  Cilla was moved to the far side of  the gate with the rest of the pregnant ewes – cue more turf-skiing – and then the balancing act, holding Cilla with one hand, standing on one leg, teasing at the gate with my fingers...

Once that was done I had time to do the other essential – take photos of the new lambs.  And a short video of Cilla, the other side of the gate, shouting for her lamb.

It all settled down within a day or so.  Cilla is still convinced that one or both of the twins is hers.  For their part, the twins are perfectly content with two mothers, and are very clear which one is the pillow and which is the milk-bar.
Opal has now given birth to a ewe lamb, Mouse and Fuzzy are still pending, but soon enough we fully expect to see the split flock again – mothers off for a graze, Aunty Cilla minding the lambs, everybody very clear who supplies the milk.

There are lots of golden rules for keeping sheep.  The first and most important one we were told was that a lamb is a suicide trying to happen.  No one mentioned the other important, top golden rule – whatever crazy stunts the sheep have pulled in the past, there is always a new surprise coming.

After the storm... Do I have to choose one?  I like it here in the middle.