I have mentioned in previous blogs that a shepherd must be vigilant during this time of year. Not only are most of the ewes entering their last trimester of gestation (considered a high-risk period when preterm abortions are possible), but here they are in full fleece, which can throw off their balance — especially in a wintry environment that is not kind to any of us with balance issues. I check the ewes at least twice each day, just to make sure that all is well. If a crisis does arise, I know that time is of the essence in most of these situations. I can hopefully arrive in time to turn it around before it becomes more serious. Yesterday I came into the old Storage Barn to find Olivia in just such a situation, and I knew I had little time to save her life.
Long before I arrived at the barn, I knew that something was amiss. I am normally greeted by Martin, the guardian llama with that group, but on this particular morning, Martin was not to be seen. As I neared the barn, I could hear his nervous humming within, warning me that something was amiss — someone had gotten themselves into a bad situation, and he was standing vigil. My steps quickened as I threw open the door and ran to the stalls that allow the low-nutrition group to come in out of the drifting snow.
As I flung open the stall door, I saw the problem: Olivia had come into the barn to nibble on grass hay and get out of the wind. She had somehow cast herself during the night, lying down in a small divot in the straw so that she couldn’t get back up. Her heavy wool coat was enough to throw her off balance, and the more she struggled, the further up her legs went and the worse her casting became. By the time I arrived, I found her with four legs in the air and little energy left for struggling. Both Martin and Osage were keeping vigil with her, worried about their friend. If I had arrived an hour or two later, this might have ended much differently — Olivia could have died.
I knelt at her side and slowly began to pull her legs over to meet the straw bedding. I knew from experience that when a sheep is cast for long enough, they are no longer stable on their legs, so I held her as she struggled to stand, assisting with balance and support. I could tell that she wanted to flee — to leave the place of her crisis behind — but I also knew that she could not yet do so. Her balance was such that if I had let go, she would have fallen to the ground once again. She had to regain her strength and balance before I could let her run free, and I knew that would take a bit of time.
I moved her over to one of the hay feeders in the run-in shelter, where I could sit comfortably while Olivia regained her composure, strength and balance. Osage came out with us, obviously concerned about her friend’s welfare. Martin, on the other hand, stayed at the scene of the incident, still humming worriedly. He still wasn’t convinced this would end well. As Olivia stood there at my knee (with my support for balance), Osage continued her friendly companionship, standing just behind Olivia and watching my every move. I could read the concern on her face — Osage knew this had been a close call.
After ten or fifteen minutes, I could tell that Olivia’s balance had returned enough that she could keep herself upright. I slowly released her to see how she would be on her own, and she wobbled into the back corner of the run-in shelter. Osage and I watched closely to make sure she didn’t fall over again. Her balance had not yet returned to normal, but she was strong enough to remain upright on her own. Osage relaxed enough to begin nibbling on some hay but was obviously still concerned and vigilant.
Eventually Olivia felt much better and the crisis had passed. I could see in her eyes that she was no longer focused internally; she once again began to take in her surroundings. This return to normal was not only evident in Olivia, but also in Osage and Martin: Osage began to eat at the hay in earnest, and Martin finally stopped his worried humming and came out of the stall to reassure himself that all had ended well. Until this point, I had been listening to him alone in the barn stall, continuing to fret over what had happened.
Thankfully, this incident ended well; I’ve had others that were not so lucky. But this time I arrived just in time to turn around a very dangerous situation. Olivia seems back to normal — and in just a few days, we will shear off these heavy woolen coats, releasing our ewes from the additional weight that can make them so unstable right now. I think we will all celebrate when that happens. In the meantime, we celebrate Olivia’s survival in a bad situation — and the fact that Osage still has her best friend at her side. Yes, it was a good day.