Sunday, April 8, 2012

Samson's little drama

On Saturday we had both noticed that Quinn was looking more and more uncomfortable. Ewes can begin to look and act awkward many days before they give birth, but by nine in the evening, when all other sensible sheep were bedded down and sleeping, Quinn was still pacing, so I caught her and put her in the lambing pen.

Nothing happened right away, so I went to bed early, expecting a busy night, telling Aimee to be sure to do a last minute check before she came to bed. Aimee woke me at midnight and I struggled into my overalls, a little groggy, and went out to the barn to join my wife.

There I saw a typical first-timer ewe struggling to learn her job.

Quinn is a two-year old ewe out of Maggie, who was put down because of tetanus soon after Quinn was born. This despite having all her shots, and on time. Tetanus vaccine doesn't necessarily work every time. But it's best to be sure and do everything by the book. It's a horrible disease, and a horrible painful way to die. It's especially hard to put down an animal that you raised yourself from a lambie.

Despite being an orphan Quinn is fairly well-adjusted for a sheep. But she was trying to give birth to one big lamb, and her birth canal was just a little tight. The lamb was presented more or less correctly, with feet and nose together. In an experienced ewe, this is no problem, feet and nose together are just a kind of rounded, slimy, bullet-shaped object when covered by the caul, or embryonic sac, and often the whole bag will just plop out after a little straining.

In last night's exhibition, the caul was long broken, and the birth canal too tight to allow all to come at once. The proper procedure is to push the head back, get the feet out one at a time, and then pull everything out gently on the next big contraction.

But Quinn's contractions seemed to be stalling or weakening. And the head wouldn't go back, or forward. It was stuck, as were the feet.

After a few minutes of trying just with my fingers, I asked for a piece of twine, which I looped around both feet in a larks-foot knot, and by this means was able to get the feet out a little further, although not all the way. I wasn't very optimistic at this point. The lamb's tongue was sticking out and I thought for sure it was dead, having tangled it's own umbilical.

But Quinnie gave one last big push and everything came out properly. The lamb tried one breath, and then seemed to give up on life again, but I swung it once by the back feet to help clear the airway (centrifugal force often does the trick), and the breathing began, although not not yet at a healthy regular rhythm.

The lamb, quite large but certainly not the biggest we've seen, was placed at Quinn's head and she began instinctively to lick it. Bit by bit the breathing became regular.

Then we watched with bated breath to see if it would get to its feet and suckle. I'd had to pull quite hard on the string and was worried that I'd damaged the lamb's lower front legs. After a little help from us the lamb stood, and so any damage was surely minimal, but things were still going a little slowly so we took the final measure of forcing Quinn to the ground and putting the lamb directly on the nipple. It drank for a long time, what seemed like ten minutes, and then began more forcefully to stagger around and learn to use it's legs.

Thus our little night-time drama, a microcosm of the season that has for six thousand years been played out each spring in sheep barns and home fields and on open prairie and grassland all over the northern hemisphere, came to an end. With ewe and lamb doing fine, we went to bed. I checked again at four and six thirty, and all remained well.

And such, dear readers, is the life of a shepherd in lambing season.

It's a rewarding occupation. But occasionally there's more drama than you bargained for at any given point.

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