Left for dead

Flock life has a reputation for being peaceful and bucolic. Seldom do we read about the harsher aspects of life within the group. Yet as prey animals, sheep depend on both individual and flock strength for survival — and in such a situation, the flock is only as strong as its weakest link. Within the group, there is a strong mentality of survive or perish, and that is never more evident than at lambing time.

Naya delivered triplets last weekend: two girls (Pilar and Perla) and a boy (Ponce). In multiple births, the birth weights are generally similar, although ewes can be a bit smaller than a ram sibling. However, in this case, the two ewe lambs were each almost three pounds bigger than the ram. Because of the difference in weights, Ponce is at a disadvantage: if the girls are nursing, he cannot get in — and if he happens to be nursing, they are big enough to knock him off the teat and take over. At birth, Naya had milk, although not quite enough to fully feed all three lambs. I knew that if I kept them sucking at the teats, her milk supply would increase to meet the needs of her growing lambs. I also knew that if I supplemented with a bottle, it would likely cause them to suckle less, thereby reducing the amount of milk that Naya produced. I watched and waited, hoping for her milk to come in more heavily.

After three days, I came out to the barn to find Ponce standing in the corner of Naya’s jug all hunched up. This is an indication that a lamb is cold and hungry. As he lay down, I stood him back up to verify my hunch — and I was right. He did not stretch upon standing, as would a content and well-fed newborn lamb. He again stood in the corner, looking miserable. I pushed him towards his mother’s teat, but Naya quickly turned and pushed him away. No teat for Ponce. She had already given up on him! She had come to the conclusion that he was the weak link in the family group (and eventually the flock) and that it was better that he die now than endanger the entire flock later. Naya had decided that he would never catch up to the girls and that he was better off dead.

Of course, as the shepherdess, I do have some say in this matter, so I quickly held Naya in place and pushed little Ponce under his dam. He backed away, obviously having been butted often enough that he had come to agree with his mother: he was meant for dead. Time and again, I pushed him under — and time after time, he backed out, afraid of the attack that he was sure was coming. I was patient, however, and eventually I showed him that he was safe to nurse, and he slowly moved in under Naya. Greedily, he grabbed at the teat on the right side, sucking with all the energy he had. In only a few seconds, he released the teat, however, and I was surprised that he didn’t want more. I milked a bit out of that side of her bag to see whether perhaps there was infection or some other issue that needed attention. What I discovered was that there was no milk left on that side; the triplets had emptied it, and obviously Ponce didn’t know to go around to the other half of the udder!

I quickly moved Naya into position so that we could access the other side of her bag, and I held her in place as I nudged Ponce back underneath. He was not eager to go back, obviously remembering his past attempts. Now that he had a little milk in his belly, his incentive to take the risk was not so strong. After a few minutes of encouragement, he latched on to the new side of the bag and his little tail began to quiver with the excitement of milk. I held Naya in place for as long as Ponce wanted to suckle, all the while keeping his sisters from crowding underneath and pushing him off. He needed all the milk he could get!

The happy family napping this morning: (L to R) Naya, Perla, Ponce, and Pilar

The happy family napping this morning: (L to R) Naya, Perla, Ponce, and Pilar

I’ve been interceding on Ponce’s behalf for the past several days, making sure that he has gotten his fill at least three or four times a day. No longer does Ponce stand in a corner, ready to die. In fact, even Naya is thinking that she might perhaps raise all three of her triplets! Her milk seems to be coming in much better, and for the past 24 hours or so, there seems to be enough for every one of her lambs — including Ponce! Now every time I enter, I’m greeted with the sight of all three of Naya’s lambs, frolicking around the mixing pen, playing with the other lambs, or snuggled all together to take a nap. It looks like Ponce is out of the woods, but I’ll be keeping a close eye on him just in case!

Yes, flock life can be sweet and bucolic, but it can just as quickly turn tough and deadly. As the shepherdess, it’s up to me to help the flock make the right decisions — and as far as I’m concerned, unless something is terribly wrong, we don’t give up on a newborn lamb.

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