It’s wooly pop season again. That’s the season of lambs popping out, but also the season of rejected lambs. Some mama sheep ignore a lamb and this season is no exception. We’re only two weeks into our first flock of lambers and already two lambs have spent the night in my great room.
The first was a little Suffolk cross lamb. He has black ears and legs with a spotty white body and at three days old, he’s still small enough to cradle like a football. His mama had triplets. After her birth, Joe put her in a lambing jug in the barn. Jugs are small pens which encourage mamas and babies to bond. They are the final stop in our maternity ward before the ewe and lamb are turned back out on pasture. For a couple of days, mama and baby are spoiled. She gets light flakes of second cutting hay and buckets of water delivered just to her. The lamb gets close access to his mama for warmth and milk. Usually this results in a close bond between the two before they are turned out to pasture. But not always.
He was a triplet, born in weather with minus degree wind chills. His mama gave birth to all three of her babies so fast that she didn’t have the time or inclination to clean off the first two before the last one dropped to the ground. It goes that way sometimes. So, he and his brother didn’t get dried off and they got cold. Very cold. When we found them their brother, who was the last born, was up and nursing. They were lying on their sides, legs out stiff, heads and necks thrown back. We thought they were dead.
A closer inspection revealed sides fluttering with tiny breaths of air. I put my finger in each of their mouths. Cold. When lambs are this far gone, it’s difficult to bring them back to life. Their normal body temperature is about 103 degrees, so if their mouths feel cold, it’s far below that. Lambs are amazingly resilient right after birth. They land on the ground with bodies full of glucose which acts like antifreeze in their veins for 2-4 hours. That usually gives them enough time to stand and start nursing. Their mother’s first milk, which is like a thin, golden custard, is full of antibodies which help quick start the lamb.
When a lambing goes well, the baby drops out behind his mama and she immediately turns to clean him off. As she flicks her tongue over him, he lifts his head, shakes out his ears, and within ten minutes is usually pulling his legs underneath his body for the first rising. Lambs instinctively head for the dark area between the ewe’s body and back legs. That’s where the round globe of milk, her udder, dangles deliciously. She noses his back end as he totters to the prize, nickering softly and licking her lips with pleasure at the scent of him.
This little baby and his brother got none of that attention. His mother was too distracted by her labor to notice them. Then she was distracted by the last baby, cleaning him off while they lay in ten degree, windy weather, slowly freezing into lamb –sicles. And then, because they were already too cold to lift their heads and bawl when she was done, she forgot that she’d had three. She walked away leaving them as a gift to the barren earth.
One lamb died in the floorboard of our truck on the way back to the house. The other hung on long enough to be placed in a sink full of warm water. I held his limp head above the surface and swirled him around, adding hotter water slowly to bring his core temperatures closer to normal. When his mouth felt warmer I dried his limp body and placed him on cardboard in front of our woodstove. It has a blower at floor level, so he lay in a sirocco of wind and it wasn’t long before he began to quiver. Soon his whole body was rattling as he shivered himself warm and in ten more minutes he began to bawl.
I was ready. Before we left the barn, we milked some colostrum from his mama. Joe had held her head and neck, pressing her against the barn wall, while I reached under and coaxed a small stream into an empty Dr. Pepper bottle. Mama grumbled and shifted, but she let her milk down and soon I had about a half a bottle full. That bottle was sitting in warm water, waiting for this lamb.
I tipped the bottle into the lamb’s mouth and it swallowed halfheartedly. Some of the gold colostrum dribbled down his chin, so I eased up. It’s easy to drown a lamb if it’s not ready to suck. For the next hour, I dribbled drops of milk into the lamb. Then it happened. After an hour of half-hearted sucking, the lamb lurched to life. It was that quick. One minute he was limp and listless, the next he was pushing to his feet and sucking hard.
This transition from near death to life always thrills me. So many things can go wrong when you’re trying to resurrect a lamb. It’s marvelous when it goes right. The next morning we took him to the barn. Step two of bringing lambs home is taking them back to their mamas. We always hope that the mama will accept the lamb. Sniff it, nicker, nudge it to her milk bag.
This little lamb was willing. He jumped right up, trying to nurse her, but she would have none of it. After one sniff, she butted him away. Every time he dove under her, she shifted denying him a meal. At one point she even laid down in her jug. So, we held her and let him nurse. Sometimes that’s all it takes. I was hopeful because the lamb was eager and his poop was going to smell like her milk. That’s all he’d had so far.
But, she must not have liked the fact that he’d been dunked in a hot bath. He didn’t smell right. He didn’t smell like her other lamb. We left him with her for the day, stopping in twice more to hold her so he could nurse. On our last visit, he looked hungry, so we let him nurse again and then went home to bed.
The next morning, when we went out to the barn, he was lying in the corner of the jug, listless and cold. UGH! So, we gathered him up again, took him home again, and resurrected him again. We had one more trick up our sleeves. Once the lamb was lively, we took him back to the barn and his mama and confined her in a ewe stanchion. It’s something we built especially for this situation. The stanchion allows the ewe to stand, lie down, eat and drink, but she can’t turn around and butt the lamb.
He spent the day with her, but it just didn’t work. Some lambs are not aggressive and he’s one of them. He bawls constantly, but he just won’t get up and nurse often enough. By that evening, the ewe had been released and the lamb was back in front of the stove, warming up yet again.
Now, he’s out in the shed behind the house. I am feeding him every 4-6 hours. I remember when I first moved onto the farm. I thought it was so much fun to have lambs to feed. And it can be, for the right person. So, I have a cute little spotted bottle lamb. He's resilient and would love a good home: one where someone has the time to nurture him. Don’t you want to join in the fun? I've named him Elsa. He's ready to put his past behind him and just let it go.