Lambing season drew to a close on Friday, with a twist we’ve never seen before.
Unlike some years, when upwards of five ewes would all deliver on the same day, this lambing season has proceeded at a nearly perfect pace. All the deliveries seemed to have at least a few days between them, allowing each new lamb (or set of twins) to settle in with Mom and get acclimated to the flock before any new arrivals brought disruptions.
We knew exactly which ewe gave birth to which lamb(s), and got each one tagged and recorded promptly. Better yet, up through Lamb #12, we hadn’t had a single death or a terribly complicated delivery. Every lamb got on its feet quickly, and began nursing.
We had a bit of a scare last Saturday, when the ewe we call Paint Bucket (because she looks like someone dumped a pail of black paint onto her head) delivered twins. One was very large, but the other looked impossibly tiny. His twin dwarfed him, and he seemed to weigh almost nothing. Although he had managed to get to his feet on his own, I didn’t really expect him to survive. He’d be a nice bonus if he made it.
A week later, little Pint Bucket (I confess, I just made that name up) is not only holding his own … he’s thriving. He gets around just as well as the bigger lambs, and already seems to be putting on weight nicely (he’s the mostly white one, on the right).
We were stuck at a total of twelve lambs for several days, with the last two bred ewes looking like they could deliver at any time. And yet, day after day, we had no arrivals. Finally, on Friday morning, these two gave us the surprise we never saw coming.
At lunchtime, I gave the barn a quick inspection. Rachael, our solid black ewe, was acting like she was in labor, so I hustled to her first. Sure enough, in the bedding behind her, was a little black and white lamb sopping wet with amniotic fluid. (I call the stuff “lambniotic fluid.”) I set the lamb in front of her, and she began licking like crazy.
That’s when I noticed the other ewe, Holstein (so named because her spotting pattern makes her look like a dairy cow), was also licking off a lamb. So far, everything seemed perfectly normal. Two ewes. Two lambs. I went to the house and got lunch.
After lunch, I returned to the barn to see if either ewe had delivered a second lamb. Neither had, but the lambs had come together — and both ewes were now licking both lambs. Rachael in particular was very aggressively trying to butt Holstein away, as if trying to claim both lambs as her own. But at the same time, Holstein seemed to think that both lambs were hers.
Naturally a bit concerned, I tried to push the two ewes away from each other — and then I noticed it. Only Holstein had bloody afterbirth hanging out of her rear end. Rachael’s rear, and udder, were perfectly dry. That was my lightbulb moment: Holstein had twins. Rachael hasn’t delivered. I kicked myself for not being more observant earlier.
I dragged Rachael out of the barn and into the beautifully sunny outdoor area, with her bellowing the whole way, and latched the door securely. Even then, she wouldn’t budge from the door, trying to nose it open with her muzzle while she called desperately to “her” lambs – both of which were now being well cared for by Holstein.
By late afternoon, when I had to reopen the barn, Rachael had a long strand of stringy mucus hanging from her birth canal — a sure sign that delivery was imminent. I had to leave for a function in town, but briefed my daughter on the situation and asked her to keep an eye on Rachael.
When I got home later that evening, my daughter gave me the sad report: Rachael had twins, but the first was stillborn. The second died almost immediately after birth.
As I went about the dreary task of disposing of the cold, wet lamb remains, I couldn’t help noticing that Rachael was remarkably nonplussed. She was continuing to horn in on one of Holstein’s lambs, insisting on licking it and trying to get it to nurse. I wondered if, that afternoon, she’d somehow known that her lambs weren’t going to make it. Perhaps they’d already been dead or dying inside her, and she’d sensed that Holstein’s lambs were the only ones she would have a shot at mothering this year.
Regardless, I decided not to intervene in the Great Lamb Heist now unfolding. Rachael is a very milky sheep (she’s raised triplets unassisted), and it would be a shame to let that good stuff go to waste. If she wants to help, I don’t mind letting her.
The two ewes spent much of Saturday squabbling over the Holstein’s lambs, with the little ones largely oblivious to the drama. As of this morning, Rachael seems to have settled on one of the two as “hers,” and is leaving the other one for Holstein. Still, when I opened the barn doors this morning and let the flock out, both ewes and both lambs seemed to be sticking together as a unit. A sometimes tense unit, but a unit.
And you know what? It’s actually kind of fun to watch. We’ve certainly never had anything like this happen before. The deaths on Friday night had been a sour note in an otherwise perfect symphony of lambs. Rachael and Holstein are doing everything they can to return that music to its harmony.