Last May, after selling most of my flock the previous fall, I had very few pregnant ewes under my care. I’d been proclaiming for years that I needed far fewer ewes or far more if I was going to make shepherding sustainable. Now it had come true, and I was excited to not feel sleep deprived and a little crazed for the entire month of May.
Of course, the best-laid plans are always an excellent opportunity for the exact opposite to occur. Lambing started with an errant first-time mother who had twins and couldn’t decide if she loved her babies or was terrified of them. We had to catch her and tie her up every few hours so her babies could nurse. Once they’d start drinking, she’d talk to them softly and seemed pleased to have them near her. But as soon as they were done, she switched back to fearing them and would run away or head butt them if they tried to get close again.
I don’t know if she would ever have come around to motherhood after such a traumatic beginning, but both babies developed scours (aka terrible diarrhea,) no doubt due in part to the stress of the situation. The weaker one died, and the stronger baby kept getting weaker. We brought the baby inside so she could get round-the-clock care, but I wasn’t optimistic she would live.
Unfortunately, the next mother-to-lamb didn’t do much better. She liked one of her babies but refused to acknowledge the other, so in just the first few days of lambing, we now had one dead lamb, and two weak, abandoned newborns.
I also learned the hard way that if you’ve got a month-long lambing period you still have to check just as often if you have 100 ewes or 10. The only difference is that with 10 ewes, 99% of the time absolutely nothing is happening. “I may have to adjust my proclamation,” I grumbled to my husband. “I need way more ewes or none at all.”
Thank goodness for lambnesia, or I might indeed have sold all my ewes last fall. For better or for worse, the strain of spring’s efforts didn’t loom so large by then, and we decided expanding the flock was the better idea. We actively started looking for more ewes, but none seemed quite right. Consequently, much to my chagrin, this year we have a tiny flock once again.
Imagine my surprise then, when I went out the first morning our lambing window opened to find two ewes with brand new, still wet babies, and a third ewe actively in labor. By lunchtime, we had a total of five babies with bellies full of milk laying beside their doting mothers. I couldn’t believe it. How was it possible to have everything go so smoothly?
The old adage “You are only as happy as your unhappiest child,” might be true for shepherding too. It’s hard to believe you are doing a good job when things go poorly. I used to chalk up all bad outcomes to my inexperience. “Next year will be better,” I’d tell myself when I made the wrong choice in keeping a mother and baby together or waited too long to intervene in a birth that wasn’t going well. “I won’t make that mistake again.”
Slowly, I have come to realize the wisdom of experience is not enough to avoid disaster. Better management, better weather, better genetics all help, but the truth is the circle of life demands death as both its ending and beginning. Or, as another old ranching adage goes: “If you have livestock, you have deadstock.”
Much as I hate that reality, that is reality — I can’t save all the babies, and I’m not supposed to. My failure is the soil’s success, our losses fertilizer for new growth. Still, there isn’t much that compares to the feeling of walking out to the greening pasture, the blue sky full of fluffy white clouds, and finding the flock peacefully grazing, healthy, happy lambs nestled nearby.
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