An imperfect shepherd is thankful for the perfect sheep

Clun Forest sheep

When I drove across the state of South Dakota to pick up a small flock of Clun Forest sheep in March — a breed I’d decided was perfect for me despite the fact I had never actually worked with or even seen any in real life — I was pretty sure I was going crazy.

Well, friends, I am absolutely stunned to inform you that these amazing sheep have somehow managed to be even better than I hoped, and I had obviously set my expectations very high.

The first ewe had her babies April 13, and in the span of 10 days, the next seven had theirs as well. With the exception of one who was stillborn, every baby was healthy and strong, and because one mother had triplets and the rest had twins, I am now sitting at a 200% lamb crop. The competence and efficiency of these ewes has been stunning.

Even the birth of the triplets was shockingly easy. I went to check the flock just before taking my kids to school last week, and found the oldest ewe, Calypso, laying down, mid-birth. She had one lamb already beside her, and a second in the process of arriving. Within a minute, both lambs were up and trying to nurse, so I left them to Calypso’s capable ministrations and dropped the kids off at school.

When I came back to check half an hour later, I was surprised to find her with three bright-eyed and sturdy babies instead of two. Calypso was talking to them in a low, comforting tone, while watching my somewhat suspicious figure peeking through the open door. Her body language indicated she didn’t want or need me interfering, so I stepped quietly away and left them to their bonding. “She’s got this,” I thought with a satisfied smile.

I was wrong. When I went to check again that afternoon, I found the smallest of the three, a pure black ewe lamb, out wandering around. She’d somehow managed to slip through two gates, and she looked lost and disoriented. Her little belly was also gaunt–it was clear she’d hadn’t gotten any milk yet. I carried her back into the pen where her mother and two brothers were waiting, but I was more than a little concerned. Perhaps Calypso had decided she didn’t want three babies after all, and had pushed the littlest out? “So much for perfection,” I muttered.

As soon as the lamb was back with her mama, it was clear the problem was not that she’d been rejected, but that she couldn’t figure out where or how to nurse. Calypso stood patiently waiting while her baby attempted to suck on every part of her that could be reached except the part that would have provided milk.

I tried to help, but nothing was working. The little one was so confused–she’d been born, been lost, been found and still hadn’t had any food. Finally, I milked a little colostrum into a bottle and fed the baby with that instead. She drank it down gratefully, and I left her snuggled up with her mother and brothers.

When I came out again, the little lamb (who I’d started calling Milly) was finally nursing. She and Calypso both seemed relieved. I was too.

But in the coming days Milly got sick, and then sicker — not getting enough colostrum right away can invite a whole host of bad bacteria to start colonizing a newborn. That was obviously what was happening, and it was all my fault for not keeping a better watch during Milly’s first few hours. I might have found the perfect sheep, but my imperfections were still a liability.

It’s been five days, and against all odds, Milly is doing better. I am still feeding her bottles. Calypso is still keeping her safe and warm. And Calypso doesn’t eye me with suspicion anymore. I swear she knows I am trying to help.

How is it that these magical sheep keep finding ways to amaze me, even somehow compensating for my mistakes? I don’t know, but I am so thankful for the gift of knowing and caring for them.

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