The secret behind creating the most powerful emotional bond ever known is revealed — remembered from our primaeval past. It occurred to me as it probably did to our ancient ancestors — when it went wrong.
Yesterday we had to leave our lambing flock for a few hours, it was an imperative. A friend had agreed to come as a locum (in between lambing a 180-ewe batch of his own sheep) but he wouldn’t get here until after we had left.
I rose at 5.15 am to check and feed the flock — chaos reigned.
Two ewes were fighting ferociously over a new born lamb that was trying to suckle from the younger one, Number Nineteen (you know they are not supposed to have names). Every time the lamb got near the teat the older ewe, Square Sheep (who you have met before) interposed herself with frantic baaing and butting of the younger ewe. I chased her off but she would not leave the lamb and with her four-wheel drive and superior power-to-weight ratio I was not going to prevail. I looked around for inspiration.
All I saw was a square wooly bottom. A long silken thread of liquor glistened from it in the morning sun. Square Sheep had given birth, she was right — it was her lamb. She looked at me accusingly and who could blame her? Still the battle raged.
The fence was nearby — I ran down the steep hill to the barn, 200 meters away, and returned with a hurdle (a galvanized fence panel — 2 meters long and quite heavy) then I got the other one and a pocket full of baler twine. I tied them in a V to make the apex of a triangular pen with the fence as its base.
At this point there was a brief intermission in hostilities — Square sheep lay down suddenly and heaved out a second lamb which Number Nineteen licked and looked at me making the purring call that sheep make after birth, ‘look, I’ve got another lamb — I told you it was mine!’ Square sheep struggled to her feet, this was her 10th lamb — she didn’t need this hassle.
Hostilities resumed — lambs were knocked in all directions but now I knew what to do — I grabbed both lambs and bundled them into the pen. Both ewes stopped and looked at me as if to say,’That’s a good idea, now let me in.’ I opened the apex of the triangular pen to let in Square Sheep, Nineteen hurled herself into the pen. I secured it with us all inside and stirred it until Square Sheep and the two lambs were on the far side , then I opened it and gave Nineteen a monumental shove and ejected her.
Nineteen now danced around the pen, distraught, wailing and I had a sudden nagging little doubt — it could just be that the first lamb was hers — I had to examine her to see if she had just given birth.
We have a permanent pen by the house, but how on earth was I to get her there?
I climbed out of the pen and leaned over and picked up the first lamb, let Nineteen sniff it, and started down to the house carrying the lamb and encouraging Nineteen to follow. A third sheep now started to wail further up the hill and my husband came out of the house to remind me it was time to go.
With lots of running back and forth and sniffing and bleating and baaing we got down to the other pen and got her in. I ran up the hill and returned the lamb to Square Sheep, pending further tests, then ran down — the other, third, sheep now wailing more urgently, husband tapping watch. I pressed Nineteen in the pen, inspected her pristine, dry and tightly closed vagina and booted her into the next field.
As I ran up the field with a bucket of water for Square Sheep and some feed, by way of apology, I noticed the wails of the third ewe were now closer together and more imperative.
Now I applied myself to the wailing ewe — she had been lying on her side in strong labour but had now rolled almost onto her back with her legs kicking in the air, which was a bit of luck because I could catch her more easily. I fell upon her and turned her on her side, she tried to get away but there would be no second chances — I was not letting go, we rolled over as she pulled me down the hill but she remained in my tight embrace. We lay panting when the cavalry arrived to hold her head end.
The lamb was well positioned, just huge, I freed its head with the next contraction, which shook liquor all over my face and the half-born lamb baa-ed, it needed a big pull to deliver the body which was presented hastily to its mother who licked it.
We rushed off to our appointment, face and hair still splattered with the magic liquid.
Around the time of delivery it is the smell and the taste of the liquor that switches on the maternal behavior in sheep, and probably in humans. That is how a curious young ewe (like Nineteen), nearly due herself and programmed to sniff out her own lambs which might be born in the black of night can accidentally get bonded to the wrong lamb.
This love potion is powerful stuff.
What happened to poor Nineteen? She’s fine, within 24 hours she had twins of her own.
Number Nineteen, earlier today and none the worse, with her lambs born a few hours earlier.