On Monday I wrote about coming down with the flu and how lambing continues, regardless of how I feel. When I fed the sheep on Monday, I knew that Liberty was likely in labor. The early signs were all there: she had “dropped” — her belly looking smaller as the lambs positioned themselves for birth. She stood in a corner with a vacant stare and ignored her flockmates. She very slowly ate only about a quarter of her daily ration of grain — and she acted as if she wasn’t sure why her head was in the bucket, why I had forced her to change her focus to something so trivial.
As the afternoon progressed into evening, more signs of labor emerged: She rubbed against the panels of her drop pen. She chased away the other ewes who wandered into her space as they tried to get a better angle at the hay feeder. She became more restless: uncomfortable lying down but not wanting to stand either. Yes, Liberty was clearly in the early stages of labor.
People often ask me how long labor takes, and the honest answer is that it’s hard to know. Part of it depends on how early we notice. At some point, the behaviors associated with labor become obvious to the shepherd, but this is not only dependent on the strength of the behaviors but also on the perception of the shepherd. I would rather assume a ewe is in very early labor, based on her behavior, and plan my day accordingly than ignore these very early signs and then have surprise lambs when I don’t expect them. These very early signs are not always an indication of labor. I believe that, like humans, sheep also have false labor as their due date approaches — they may act as if they are in very early labor even though true labor is yet hours (or even days) away.
The passage of time helps differentiate false labor from true labor. Signs of false labor remain constant and do not intensify. False labor lasts for minutes or hours and then disappears, with the ewe returning to perfectly normal late-pregnancy behaviors. True labor will bring more and more signs of labor as time progresses, and the frequency and intensity of the signs only increase with time.
In Liberty’s case, by evening I knew she was in true labor. Not only had things intensified, but I was also seeing new behaviors. First, she had begun pawing at the straw as if to make a nest. This is very common in laboring ewes, but in Liberty’s case, it brought a smile to my face. Her digging was very tentative, as if she knew she should do this but wasn’t at all sure why. Instead of the furious digging of some of our ewes, the tip of her hoof barely grazed the surface of the straw — yet she couldn’t stop herself from digging. It was obvious that the hormones had kicked in, even though she didn’t understand why she was being driven to do what she was doing!
Then came the licking and the yawning. Some sheep will lick at themselves or at the towels I hang from the panels, at hand for drying newborn lambs. Others, like Liberty, will lick their lips. Again, this behavior is instinctual, a precursor to licking off their lambs after birth — a behavior which both stimulates the lamb and acts as part of the bonding process between ewe and newborn. Yawning can be a stress release for some ewes during labor, and it obviously worked that way for Liberty. By about 9:30 p.m., her tongue would dart in and out, ready to lick her new lambs (even though they were still hours away) and in between I would see big, exaggerated yawns. Despite our precautions to time deliveries during daylight hours, I knew this one would come during the night, so I headed to bed and set my alarm for 11:30, figuring I would get what rest I could.
Very seldom does the alarm wake me during lambing season, since I’m in the habit of waking every couple of hours through the night to check the monitor. When I awoke at 11, her water had not yet broken, and although her labor had obviously intensified, I still had time before I had to go out. I set the alarm for 1:00 a.m. and drifted back to sleep.
I awoke at 12:30 and checked the monitor. Again, things had intensified, but I knew I still had a bit of time since her water hadn’t broken yet (no sign of gushing fluid or a bubble of fluid surrounded by a membrane). I decided to sleep for the additional half hour before the alarm went off. When it woke me, I wasn’t surprised to see that Liberty’s water had broken and the lambs were coming. I quickly got dressed and headed out with my headlamp in place so I wouldn’t wake the rest of the flock by turning on the barn lights.
The first lamb was a big dark ram lamb. I knew his coloration because (in the correct “nose and toes” birthing position) both the front legs and the entire muzzle were very dark as they periodically peeked from the birth canal. Once Liberty focused on pushing him out, Patriot came relatively quickly at 1:40 p.m. and weighed 12.3 lbs. I cleaned off his face and placed a clip on his cord. After a minute or two of recovery, Liberty got up and began to lick off her newborn son.
The amniotic fluid that soaks the newborn lamb is enticing to ewes and encourages them to lick and bond with their newborns. However, it’s not only incredibly enticing to their own dam, but also to all the other ewes in the drop pen — which can encourage the stealing of lambs. As I sat in the straw and allowed Liberty bonding time with Patriot, I helped a bit with the cleaning and fended off the ewes who were drawn to the new little family.
In a short period of time, Liberty once again became agitated and eventually lay down in the straw near her son to deliver her second lamb: a sweet white ewe lamb, Pilgrim, who arrived at 2:10 after a short period of pushing; she weighed 10.3 lbs. I pulled the new lamb on top of Patriot to make sure that when Liberty licked off her new girl, she didn’t forget the fact that she had another lamb. If the firstborn wanders away at this time, they can easily become orphaned as the ewe bonds closely with her second, forgetting her first. By 2:30, I picked up both lambs and carried them, feet skimming the straw, slowly towards their jug (pen) where they would bond with their mother for the next few days. Liberty, seeing her struggling lambs, followed slowly behind. I lay them in the jug, filled the water and hay for Liberty, and left them to themselves.
By 2:50 a.m., I had dug out all the bedding soiled by the birth and replaced it with a fresh layer of barn lime and straw. I returned to the jug and stripped Liberty’s teats, removing the waxy plug that protects the milk supply before birth, and I held each lamb to one side of her udder. They latched on greedily as Liberty stood and happily licked their back ends to encourage nursing. Obviously my work there was done, so I gathered up the dirty towels and headed back into the house by 3:10 a.m.
Once inside, I stripped off my soiled clothing and threw both the clothes and the towels into the washing machine and started the load. Finally, at 3:30 a.m., I collapsed back into bed, exhausted. I knew from looking at the other ewes in the drop pen that I was, thankfully, finished with lamb deliveries for the night and could finally get a bit of sleep before chores in a few hours.