As a longtime shepherd, I have always offered to mentor those just beginning their work with a flock. Especially at this time of year, when there is such a fine line between life and death, it’s not unusual to get a call in the middle of the night asking “Can you come and help us?” “Can you tell me what you would do in my place?” After seventeen years and countless lambs of our own, it seems selfish to not let others benefit from the experience I’ve gathered — some of which has ended well and others that have taught me valuable and often tragic lessons. Yet I don’t think people realize that some situations can shake the confidence of even the most experienced shepherd.
I got a call recently from a fellow shepherdess with a small flock nearby. I will not go into all of the details of what happened but will share the basic outline. This family had been struggling with a ewe who carried triplets and was very near her due date. She was not doing well, and we all knew that she would not be able to deliver her own lambs. In order to save the lambs, it would be necessary for the shepherdess to intercede and pull the lambs once labor began. Too long a delay would mean the death of all of the lambs, and very possibly the ewe — a loss that would be not only a huge financial hit but also a terrible emotional tragedy — so they were on standby for labor to begin.
I got the call one evening last week that labor had begun. The ewe’s water had broken and the shepherds were trying to pull the lambs out. The problem was that when they went to pull the first lamb, all they could feel were front hooves — no nose — and they knew they should not pull a lamb unless they had both “nose and toes.” They had repeatedly tried to locate the head of the lamb in the uterus, and since they were having no luck, they called for my help.
I drove over to assist as quickly as I could, but unfortunately there was little I could do. The problematic lamb was insistent on turning its head back, and there is little space to work within the birth canal. When I got the head forward, I had to remove my hand in order to pull out the lamb. And time after time, the lamb would immediately turn its head back to the position in which I had found it. I tried everything that I could do to help bring this lamb out into the world, but I finally suggested that they call the vet. Things were beginning to look really bad, and we needed someone with nonfatigued muscles and possibly a lamb-puller.
When the vet arrived, I made it a point to leave. This was not my farm nor my sheep. I told the vet all that we had attempted and where things stood, and then I left them to their work. In the end I got a text that the first two lambs and the ewe had died. The last of the triplets, a little ewe lamb, had survived and was living in their kitchen as a bottle lamb. Although the surviving ewe lamb was a gift, the entire experience was crushing for all concerned. When I walked into my house, I was covered in blood and sobbing. I don’t know if it’s harder to lose one’s own sheep or someone else’s. When it is your own sheep, you know them and have a relationship with them — and I always feel as though I’ve let them down. When I arrive to help someone else, I can see in their eyes that they feel as if the cavalry has arrived. But if it goes bad, I see that hope replaced with the crushing disappointment of failure. Neither loss — my own or that of a friend — is easy.
After seventeen years’ experience, I know a lot about the battle to save a sheep. Yet none of those skills work well without confidence, and losing lambs or ewes shakes my confidence to its core and causes me to feel hesitant. Maybe I should just call the vet. Maybe I can’t do this. Maybe someone else would be better at this. Right after helping at this other farm, my own Ivy went into labor with quads. My confidence was shot, yet my girl needed me. One lamb of Ivy’s that I eventually saved had its head back in exactly the same position as the lamb that I had unsuccessfully tried to save at that other farm. As I worked with Ivy, I kept flashing back to that other ewe. If I couldn’t save her or her lamb, what made me think I could save Ivy and this lamb? As hard as I tried with Ivy — in a particularly difficult labor — I still lost two of her four lambs. That further damaged any tattered confidence I might have been able to pull together. It brought on days of self-doubt and worry about the rest of my flock.
Yet I know that the confidence I need to help my flock and to help others will eventually return. With each birth of live lambs, with each correct assessment I make, I feel a bit stronger and a bit better able to help with the next problem. These experiences can be crushing for all involved, but really, what are my options? To quit? Where would that leave my flock? And the other shepherds I try to assist? I know, intellectually, that my experience is helpful in many of these situations. Yet if I don’t believe that is true — if I don’t have the confidence to roll up my sleeves, put on an OB glove, and go fix the problem — the knowledge I carry is of no use. Somehow, I need to find a way to get my mojo back.