Torrential rain all night — sodden ground but not all that cold — not good lambing weather but ‘not a dying day’ the farmer said as we both looked out across the valley and, for a fleeting moment, the sun came out.
That was what we needed to hear.
Later in the day the rain abated and someone was baa-ing loudly up by the hedge. Like humans some of our ewes labour stoically in silence, perhaps with the occasional muted grunt at the very end but some labour vociferously. Number Twelve is a pretty young ewe, lively and highly strung, she shouts in labour. Today she shouted that she was at the end of the first stage and I ran out with my binoculars to supervise — that is our arrangement.
They lamb out of doors but not in the laissez-faire, survival-of-the-fitest sense. We watch and only intervene if they need it and if they need it there seems no problem in them accepting it — I guess it’s all in the timing but our days of chasing the two-headed sheep are hopefully over — that’s a sheep with its own head one end and its lamb’s head sticking out the other.
Ovine obstetrics makes me think of childbirth before the days of modern medicine when more deaths were caused by officious intervention (with dirty hands) than from the complications of birth. We watch and the more we watch the better we grasp what is normal and what is usual for our individual animals and we do it quietly and from a distance. Just like humans, a relaxed and confident mother is the key to a happy outcome.
Next came our friendliest ewe — I don’t know why she is so tame — she’s never been singled out for special treatment — not bottle fed and never ill. She took herself off into the hedge, as they do, and silently produced a male lamb.
Friendly Sheep has an immense fleece (descendent of Square Sheep) and has thick wool all over her udders — she is perfectly adapted for life in a testing climate but her hirsutism presents a problem for her lamb — lambs are drawn to the teat by its smell and its heat — insulated teats are hard to find.
In the midst of this hunt while I am considering how to wax a sheep’ udder (ouch!) something else happens — something falls to the ground and rolls down the hill — it is a second lamb and the mother is completely unaware of it. When it bleats she looks up for a moment then goes back to nosing her first. Second Lamb shakes his nose free from the membranes with an extravagant gesture and bleats again — no response.
I pick up the lamb and clean its face with my hand then give it to the mother who looks pleasantly surprised and interested and she starts to lick it while I grab Number One Lamb and go hunting the teat. I plug it in and beat a retreat.
By 10 o’clock at night, Second Lamb is teetering about the hillside, meters from its mum, bleating weakly. I take it to its mother, ‘Not mine,’ she baas and gives it a gentle butt, then a not so gentle butt.
I try again, ‘Not mine — smell it!’
I do , it smells terrible, like something a dog might roll in which is what it must have done on another roll down the hill..
When my husband gets home from his Domino match, dropped off by a farmer friend he says to the friend, ‘Oh God — you know what’ll happen next — it’ll be in our wet-room.’
‘It is already!’
I tell him that I have prepared a pen in the shed and the friend offers us an adopter — a sort of anti-butting crate. The next hour is spent slippy-sliding up and down the sodden hillside in the rain with Number One Lamb bleating in a bucket and Friendly Sheep following then panicking and running back up the field to something she couldn’t quite remember.
The other sheep are baaing their conflicting advice. Eventually our old cade lamb, Aby, comes to the rescue and walks with us, Friendly Sheep was reassured and follows to the pen in the barn where we re-unite her with Second Lamb having warmed and dried it and given it a bottle of colostrum and washed its under the tap, dried it with hay and rubbed it on its big brother so that it smells more-or-less right.
Friendly Sheep settles immediately in the security of the shed, knows she has two lambs though she can’t count and is letting the now vigorous second lamb suckle.
Next morning they are a picture of domestic harmony.