As in everyone’s life, we shepherds have experiences that don’t go the way we hope. Maybe a lamb gets pneumonia and dies, or a ewe has a particularly difficult labor. Attentive shepherds will look back over what happened, trying to glean what went wrong and how we could have achieved a better outcome. We know that if it happened once, it could happen again, and we want to be prepared. Even eighteen years into my shepherding life, I’m still learning, still trying to figure out why things went wrong and how I can prevent that particular disaster in the future.
Our first lambs were scheduled to come this week, and judging by the ewes we locked into the drop pen (where they are meant to drop their lambs), I was pretty sure Molly was going to deliver the first lambs of 2018. She was huge, and her bag was full of colostrum just waiting for little lambs to suckle. Based on her breeding markings, Molly’s due date was officially February 15th, but I was fairly certain she wouldn’t wait that long. When I went out to feed the flock on Monday morning (the 12th), I was not surprised to see her shunning all feed and standing in a corner with her head down, shifting her weight from one rear leg to the other to relieve her discomfort. These were all good signs of labor beginning.
By late afternoon, it was really obvious that Molly was in labor — and I was getting excited. She has given me a number of really lovely ram lambs in recent years, but I’ve been waiting for the right ewe lamb(s) from her, and statistics were on my side this year. After many boys, it was really time for some girls! I went in to dinner and kept checking her on the barn camera.
By bedtime, I wasn’t sure what was happening with Molly. Her labor was taking a long time, but it did seem like it was progressing, albeit slowly. She was now keeping the other ewes on the opposite side of the drop pen, and she was alternately digging a nest for delivery and wandering around, trying to find the exact right spot. Occasionally she would lie down to push, and this seemed to become more frequent with time. I was encouraged that perhaps I might see lambs from her sometime during the night. I went to bed early, expecting a long night, and set my alarm for 12:30 a.m.
When the alarm went off, I went outside to actually see what was happening. The camera system is great, but in cases where things are not progressing as expected, there is nothing like getting eyes on my subject. Once in the barn, I could see that her water had not yet broken (so the lambs were still safely tucked in the uterus), but she was pushing more and more often. This concerned me, but since the amniotic bags were still intact, I went back in for some more sleep and returned at 3:30 a.m.
This next visit started alarm bells for me. This was taking too long — way too long — and still there was no water bag or evidence of lambs. I put on an OB glove and lubed up to find out what was what. She was getting a bit swollen at the back end, but I soon found the cervix — barely open enough to get one fingertip inside. I couldn’t figure out why she was pushing so often. Usually a ewe only pushes once the lamb is in the birth canal. This felt all wrong — but again, since there was no fluid leaking and no signs of imminent trouble, I went back to bed.
When I arrived in the barn in the morning, I knew it was not good. Molly had continued pushing on and off through the night and was very swollen. I tried another internal exam but her tissues were so very distended it was hard to get my bearings to find the cervix. When I did find what I thought was the cervix, I could only get two fingers into the opening. I called the vet and got permission to give her two drugs: one to reduce the inflammation and the other to help soften the cervix. I used manual massage to try to open things up, but also asked if the vet could come to help. I didn’t want to do more harm than good, and as the swelling was constantly increasing, I didn’t know how long I could continue without losing my bearings.
The vet arrived within half an hour and took over. By that point, he could get four fingers into the cervix, so we were making progress. Molly was so very swollen that it was hard for me to even look at her back end. The vet finished the dilation and began to try to deliver the lambs. The first lamb was upside down with its head turned back, and after much effort, he was able to deliver this lamb — but it did not survive. It was a beautiful moorit ewe weighing 13 pounds. The sibling had a better chance, but it had also been through quite an ordeal. This lamb did not survive either — another beautiful moorit ewe, weighing 11.4 pounds.
Our focus then turned to Molly, who had survived quite a trauma by this point. She looked really bad, lying there in the straw. Her own blood from the delivery was mixed with the contents of the gallon bottle of lubricant that the vet had brought, so it looked even more horrible. When he finished, she was not willing to get up. She licked her dead lambs for a few minutes and then adjusted herself so they lay behind her. She knew they were dead. She lowered her head to the straw and looked like she was giving up.
We cleaned things up and moved Molly to a jug where she’d have hay and water within easy reach — and no other ewes to give her a hard time. Instead of the joyous celebration that typically accompanies the first lambs, our house and barn are in mourning — and hoping that the losses are behind us and that Molly recovers. Only time will tell, but there have been a couple of good signs. She is eating and drinking, and she is now getting up and down. She has a long road to recovery, but I am patient. What could have been a total loss of mother and two lambs may be limited to only the lambs. Yet I know that this one will haunt me. I know I’ll be turning it over in my mind for weeks to come. For each delivery through this lambing season, I’ll remember Molly’s difficult birth and worry about the next laboring ewe in front of me, even as I celebrate each small milestone of her labor. The line between life and death this time of year is a very fine one, and it takes so little to lose so much.