Sunday, March 30, 2014
New life, begins with "U"
Here are our first two as-yet nameless lambs of the year. Their names, when they get them, will begin with "U," since that's the alphabetical system we use. Last year was "T", and we got Tansy and Tango and wotnot. Aimee can remember the names. She chooses them or nearly all of them. I have to write them down or I forget them!
We'd been wondering when we'd get the first lambs. It's eminently predictable, of course: With almost all sheep breeds, you get lambs almost exactly five months after "tupping" -- when the ram services the ewe. Five months after sheep sex, in other words. The problem is, you have to observe the sheep sex act in person and note it down. This is not nearly as perverted as it sounds.
British sheep farmers, for whom lambing is the make-or-break farm profit time of the year, use elaborate systems of harness and crayon or paint to make sure they know as much as they possibly can. The ram either wears a harness with a tablet of waxy "crayon", or has his chest covered in a greasy kind of paint, and the farmer can see the marks on the backs of each ewe and know that she's been serviced. By taking notes of the dates and making counts of the number of painted ewes observed, the farmer can plan ahead.
We have no such need for precision. It's been five months nearly to the day. Having only a few animals to care for, we can observe each animal several times daily. The signs that an ewe is about to give birth are pretty obvious, off her feed, standing alone, circling, pawing the ground, lying down, grunting, and so on. Accordingly, when last night we observed poor old skinny Nellie looking uncomfortable and off by herself, when everyone else was tucking into a feed of hay, we separated her immediately and bundled her into one of the lambing pens.
I stumbled out rather groggily to check on Nellie at around 2.30 am or so, only to realize immediately we'd separated the wrong animal, and another ewe named Reggie had already given birth to at least one lamb. She's a sensible sort of ewe for a youngun' and this is her second year, so she'd chosen to give birth in the barn instead of the nasty, sleety, rain-on-snowbanks-with-added-ice-for-good-measure, typical nasty Maine spring weather, that we had going on outside. For which we are grateful. Chasing sheep with newborn lambs to catch 'em among crusty, rained-on, manure-smeared snowbanks is no great fun for man or beast.
By the time I'd gone back into the house to pull on coveralls and warmer clothes -- I'd gone out to make the night check in my big fleece coat and plastic Crocs, nothing more -- and wake Aimee and get both of us back out there to help Reggie out if need be, there was already a second lamb. I think she had given birth to both earlier and I just hadn't seen the second one at first because, well, I didn't even have me specs on!
Anyway, mother and lambs, one ewe-lamb and one ram-lamb, went into the maternity pens, and were given a heat lamp. Mom got a feed of hay and a little grain and a bucket of water. I checked for milk, and we watched to see if the lambs would feed.
But watching newborn lambs try to find the udder is like waiting for Christmas as a five year old -- sometimes it takes forever. Both were on their feet and warm, and mom wasn't rejecting them, so we went back to bed. They'd sort it eventually. Back out at six am for another check and both were doing great, warm and dry and still on their feet, so they must have fed.
And so, without very much fanfare at all, begins another lambing season on the Great Farm of Jackson, Maine, and the circle of life keeps turning.
We're more aware of this particular circle than usual because we both had poor news of ailing older relatives yesterday. One one hand we're watching out for new life, and on the other we're worried about old age, sickness and to be blunt, death, for people we love.
But that's life, which happens, sometimes wonderful like a warm, live, wet newborn lamb, sometimes sad and scary, sometimes on the same day in the same hour, and it's probably better for the human person to be closer to it than is the norm in our very silly modern world.
Which I suppose is why we farm.