Getting in Sheepshape

by Olivia Downs

Spring is here and so are the lambs. It all started three weeks ago when a group of us went up to the Cornell Cooperative Extension for our weekly farm work time. It was our second time specifically working with Besty—the farm livestock expert—and the sheep. The first had been a month prior when all the ewes were chased into a pen (by us!) for a health check. We checked their mouths to make sure they had all of their teeth and under their eyes for healthy pink color (pale coloring can indicate anemia and parasites). We also attempted to decipher each ewe’s identification number…not an easy task when the numbers on their ears were spotted, holey, dirty, and faded.

The next time we went up to the pasture, the ewes had doubled in size; their woolen backs were broader with their swollen, pregnant bellies. A flat back can cause a sometimes fatal condition called “turtling,” where the ewe manages to flip herself onto her back and is stuck until someone finds her hooves in the air. The day was warm and the ewes were slow to move, making it difficult to get all the girls into the barn in one go. One ewe was particularly reluctant and we had to usher her in individually. By the time everyone was in, we were all sweating.

Then we entered the mosh pit of wool. For the next three hours it was a detective hunt and—in some cases a high speed chase—of pregnant ewes.  The rhythm went like this: grab the ewe with Besty on one end and one of us on the other, list her number, feel for an udder, try not to fall over, confirm the suspected pregnancy with an inspection of the back end, and write her number in spray paint on her back. This process was a delicate affair and many disgruntled mums in the last weeks of pregnancy did not enjoy having their teats tickled by amateurs; there was a lot of bucking, squirming and bruised legs as a result. While we tackled surprisingly dexterous mums and listened to the cacophony of heaving, one sheep had gone into labor without our noticing.

She was a first year mother and had a bare neck from reaching over the fence to nibble the green grass in the neighboring pasture. When she first came in we had noticed her acting oddly. Betsy had initially attributed this to a prolapse, an ailment that afflicts some ewes in the last week or so of pregnancy. However, when Heron squealed, “I see a hoof!” we knew it was the real deal.

Soon it became clear that the ewe was not managing the birth well on her own. It usually takes them around half an hour and she was closing in on two hours of labor. It was time to try and help. The next 15 minutes felt like hours as Betsy used her arm to try and reposition the lamb, whose head appeared to be too big. Finally, after struggling with the fore legs she pulled out a dead purple and blue lamb. After heroically trying to revive the creature she reached back into the mother and pulled out a second lamb. This one looked to be in better shape and Betsy employed all the tricks to revive it. Yet despite her ministrations the damp little yellow lamb remained inert. In that moment, the tragedy of nature was shockingly real.

Our first lambing experience and—for some of us—our first birthing experience will not be easily forgotten. The vital intimacy of life and death hung over the house for the next few weeks as every day brought news from the lambing shed. The sadness surrounding the first two deaths was soon overtaken by the plethora of life and fertility in the sheep barn. During recent weeks there have been new lambs to be tagged and checked every morning. First it was two sets of twins, then a run of ten new lambs in one day and now there are over forty babies and the barn is a circus. Knobby-kneed four-day-olds butt each other, enthusiastic two-day-olds nurse, one-day-olds bleat, newborns curl up in piles, mothers worriedly count and recount their precious children and Sustainability Semester students revel at the miracle of life.

- Emma DayBranch and Olivia Downs