A day with a long list of jobs is almost a guarantee of something going wrong. As a matter of practicality, I started with laundry, hanging out the wash whilst my partner went to feed the sheep. It’s been a nice, bright and sunny day with a crisp and bone-biting northerly wind so you stay awake to enjoy it. I was in the middle of juggling pegs when my partner shouted for help.
In the hour or so since I last checked, our final ewe for the season went from nothing to lambed. And in trouble. On a day with serious wind-chill.
|Shove over, I'm older with more insurance - Cilla (foreground)|
making her bid for the lamb
Around about this time last year I wrote of our ageing ewe Cilla trying to take a new-born lamb from it’s mother, and here she was, at it again. With a side-order of Idris the gander being an aggressive nuisance. Last year I had to handle it on my own – it’s so much easier with two. We led the ewe into the barn, got her settled in and shut everyone else out. Job done. Crisis over. Back to hanging laundry and feeding sheep.
Not too long after, I went back to check. Soay are outstandingly self-sufficient, but things do sometimes go wrong. The lamb had found a gap and gone behind a barrier – easy enough to fix, so I settled him back with mum and headed off to tell my partner. Naturally, we drifted by for another look – basic precaution, and Soay lambs are outstandingly cute.
We only have a small number of sheep, and we’ve only been doing this for about ten years, but sometimes you look and you just know something is wrong, even if you don’t know what. It took a while to figure it out, but the lamb was not suckling, which is high on the list of terminal bad news for a new-born.
|Here, right where I'm pointing|
I stood him up and pointed his nose in the right direction. How hard can it be? Lambs have been finding the teat and sucking for thousands of years. Junior would suck on anything except the teat. So I stepped back and my partner took a go. Pick up lamb, guide nose, contact with teat... Seriously, it’s not us, it’s the lamb.
Imagine a multiple choice exam, Just to make it simple we’ve made every answer A. There you go, try your best. This lamb just keeps ticking D.
|Feed me, sucker.|
Let the dribble and drool commence.
There comes a point where this is truly life-threatening. My partner drove to our local farm supplies store to pick up a pack of commercial ‘colostrum’ substitute (the extra-rich initial milk the ewe produces to help jump-start the lamb). We already had some that we bought just in case, but now years out of date – our Soay rarely need this stuff. So rarely in fact that this is the first time in ten years.
So, lamb has had a few feeds. He keeps standing and heading for the udder, but it’s those last few millimeters where his nose veers away from the teat. Left a bit, right a bit, bang on, go for it... what’s this over here?
And now the final problem. We think he’s actually premature. After a lot of staring and muttering, we’ve narrowed down one of the things that bothered us at the start: his head is the wrong shape. It’s remarkably hard to explain. Think of an inflatable toy that just needs a few more puffs of air to push the nose out to where it belongs. We have seen this sort of deformity once before in a pair of lambs born to a ewe who was very ill, but at least hers got the hang of suckling promptly.
On the bright side, the laundry is drying. We’re going to need that later. Hand-feeding a lamb is a messy business.
Just as I post this, junior appears to be suckling at last.