The Not So Good Shepherd

Managing sheep, particularly when out watching them graze, is wonderful fodder for prayer about the “Good Shepherd.” Just a couple of weeks ago, after bringing the sheep in to the fold from the pasture, we seemed a few lambs short. I took Homeschooled Farm Girl and Scooter the Amazing Wonderdog back out in the high weeds for a second look — and located the lambs which had become disoriented and left behind.

But every shepherding story doesn’t have such a happy ending. Regular blog readers know we had a bumper crop of lambs born this year; the eight ewes had 16 live births. Tabasco, our occasionally hyperactive Red Healer, killed one of those lambs when it was a week old, but we hadn’t had any other deaths.

Alas, that record was not to stand. With this many lambs, we were due for some kind of disappointment. A few days ago, I noticed that the youngest and smallest lamb was beginning to act a bit lethargic and to hang back from the rest of the flock. I immediately administered an apple cider vinegar drench, which is a nice overall tonic. He would still get up and walk just fine, but I quickly discovered the root of his lethargy problem: he was getting crowded out at the hay feeders. And he was a little too small to reach the drinking water in the stock tank once the level had gone down — and ditto for the mineral in the mineral bucket.

Over the next couple of days, I kept close tabs on him and tried to make sure he got better nutrition…but the damage had apparently been done. Once a lamb gets beyond a certain point, it’s sometimes difficult to get their health built back up again to where they can hold their own with the flock. Saturday afternoon, he was still making an effort to eat — but by Saturday night it was clear he wasn’t going to make it. He’d crawled into a corner, put his head down, and begun breathing heavily.

As the rest of the flock enjoyed a late evening snack of hay, I took the little lamb in my arms and sat down to comfort him. I’d seen this more times than I care to count, and knew he was now in the death spiral. I talked soothingly to him, rubbed his back and stomach, and tried to find a position that would let him breathe a little easier. Most of all, I told him I was sorry I couldn’t have done more for him.

But I couldn’t bear to put a bullet in his head. I save that action for the most severely injured livestock. For a sick lamb, I hold out hope to the very end that he might get a good night’s sleep, or that his immune system will kick in, or that he’ll find a hidden reserve. So I made him comfortable in his corner of the barn, locked everything up, and called it a night.

Not surprisingly, Sunday morning, he was exactly where I’d left him. As the rest of the flock got busy eating, I found an old paper feed bag and managed to slide his stiffened body into it for disposal. (With the heat this week, I didn’t want to just throw the body into the trash can without something around it to help contain the smell. And I certainly didn’t want to leave his body in the hedgerow, where it might attract predators like the fox I’d just spooked off.)

In a thoroughly melancholy frame of mind, I went about the rest of my morning chores. It always bothers me when I can’t save one of our animals, especially one as innocent as a little lamb. I suppose I ought to be used to it by now, but it still gets to me. And that gave me an awful lot to think about for the whole rest of the day.

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