I am asked literally dozens of times each spring whether we have any bottle lambs and whether others can come and help feed them. To many people, nothing seems sweeter than a bottle lamb. They imagine a soft and cuddly baby that eagerly anticipates their visits, rhythmically tugs on the bottle with eyes half open, and then, peacefully sated, allows them to cuddle for a bit before releasing them back into the flock.
There is a dark side to bottle feeding, and honestly, I try to do everything I can to avoid bottle lambs in our flock. The very best nutrition comes from sheep and not humans. As much as our science has progressed — producing colostrum replacers, milk replacers, and the like — the very best nutrition still comes right from the teat. Lambs are bigger and healthier if there is an abundant supply of milk designed by nature specifically for lambs. There is nothing better, no matter what scientists might want to think or advertise.
Most people don’t consider the labor involved with bottle lambs. For visitors, it’s a one-time commitment: they come, put on shoe covers and enter our barn with the ready-prepared bottle. The lamb drinks it down in a few minutes, and after a brief snuggle, the people are off. The shepherd, though, is left doing regularly spaced feedings around the clock. A newborn lamb who’s getting nothing from its mother will eat every two hours, day and night, in the first days. That means I get up multiple times a night to make sure they get a constant supply of colostrum to boost immunity and survival during their first weeks. Not enough colostrum can mean poor growth and development — or death — so oversleeping is not an option. Although we begin to widen the space between feedings by day three, I am already dead tired. Not only am I getting up at night to go feed the bottle lamb, but I’m also getting up to monitor and often deliver new lambs. Bottle feeding is a task that is much more appealing during daylight than it is at 3 a.m.!
Some people make bottle feeding easier on themselves by bringing the lamb into the house and, for a time, letting it live there. This creates new issues due to the lamb’s removal from its mother and the flock. Without its mother’s care, the lamb is essentially an orphan and is now living a life that is part human (human home, schedule, physical contact, etc.). This lamb will never again be viewed as part of the flock.
Our January is a perfect example. Her mother was intent on killing her, so it was life with us or death in the barn. It was not a decision I made lightly, but she lived in our laundry room for a time and was returned to the flock after a couple of weeks. When January returned to the flock, they no longer viewed her as a sheep — she was essentially half sheep and half human in their eyes. The only lambs who befriended her were the other bottle lambs (we happened to have a couple that year), who ended up being sold. January went for many years with no close friends. Now the closest are her two daughters, Nisan and Sweet Pea, who joined our flock relatively recently. Yet January remains pushed to the sidelines of flock life, forced to look in from the outside but never being a welcome member of the whole.
Heavenly delivered her lambs a couple of nights ago and obviously had milk on only one side of her bag. I made a difficult decision: her son Qayin (Hebrew for Cain) would nurse on the functional side of the bag and her daughter Quaker would become a bottle lamb — but a bottle lamb in the barn. She lives with her mother and brother and continues to be mothered by her dam, just like any lamb. When I come out to feed a bottle, Heavenly is still all over Quaker, murmuring to her and licking her gently.
Although I had to get up the first few nights to feed her out in the cold barn, the relationship between Quaker and Heavenly is intact. When the little family group is released into the mixing pen, Heavenly will stand up for her girl and keep away the “mean kids” and other mothers who might get pushy. Because her mother will still claim her, Quaker will grow up as an integral part of the flock, with all the relationships that entails. She will have friends and a large flock around her, as a sheep should. And in addition to all that, she and I will have a close bond because I gave her what her mother couldn’t: the nutrition to grow up big and healthy and beautiful, as only a Heavenly daughter could!