I got an email the other day from a friend who was debating what to do with a lovely ewe with mastitis. In part, the email read:
Can we talk mastitis? As [someone experienced with sheep] I know what my answer is, but let’s say you have a nice two year old ewe who has some color genetics you want and otherwise is pretty awesome. Good momma, highly sought after fleece, friendly, etc. who, of course has gotten mastitis in one half of her bag shortly after giving birth. She was off feed and sick but was treated and bounced back quickly. She has two lambs on her, and we are supplementing the one (who has also found out how to sneak drinks off everyone else!). Do you breed her again next year? Pretty much I need you to tell me what I already know. Thank you.
Whenever we face these difficult decisions, it’s always easier to think straight after a discussion with friends — and that is what the author of the email hoped for. Yet my answer may have surprised her. In part, I wrote:
Well, I’ve gone in both directions on this, so I’ll try to explain how I look at it and why. I’m just not a cut-and-dried type of girl, I guess.
I had a gal who gave me a pair of stunning Romney ram lambs some years ago. She was young but lost literally half of her bag to mastitis after delivering her boys. She was a really great ewe but was, I realized, unrelated to most of my flock — and genetically, I had gotten the traits I wanted in her boys. Their sire, too, was a ram I used only that one year — and besides the ram lambs, I had kept only one daughter. I knew that keeping this half-bagged ewe would mean future bottle lambs and possible ewe lambs who would be related to these ram lambs (one of which I had decided to keep for breeding). When a woman came along looking for a fiber sheep, I moved the half-bagged ewe out, and in hindsight, I am happy with that decision.
On the other hand, I currently have a lovely Romeldale ewe who has only half a bag. She is old (born in 2007), and she lost her one side in 2014. Although I have one daughter, she does not have all of the genetics I hope to get. The daughter I’ve kept is okay, but not exactly what I could possibly get from the ewe if I am patient. I’m willing to deal with the expense and labor of bottle-feeding in hopes that I might yet get the lamb I so want from her. She is carrying twins again this year, so we’ll see.
So, I might not be a good one to ask. It becomes, to me, a question of the benefits and cost: if the benefits can or will outweigh the costs, then I invest. If not, then I move on. I reassess every year, since over time, how strong the returns vs. how high the cost can change.
She then replied that her reason for being hesitant to keep the ewe is that she had a similar situation in the past and had retained the ewe in her flock. She explained:
I knew she was sick and I had [tried everything] to get her better. One night I was sitting in her stall and she literally came over and laid down beside me, put her head in my lap and died. Of course, I was devastated and felt it was my fault since I bred her again. Since then, I have learned a lot but I swore I would never do that again. Most sheep don’t die from mastitis but mine did.
After eighteen years of shepherding, I knew just how she felt. I’ve struggled with this type of decision before and know I will again, so I told her:
Here’s another bit that might give you a different perspective. It is an understanding that has evolved over time and has really gelled for me in the past five years or so.
It is my belief that most adult ewes love having lambs. Once they have had the experience, the drive to disperse their genes into the next generation is incredibly strong, and generally they take very good care of their lambs (although I do select for this trait, so it should not be a surprise that this is so in my flock). I’ve tried over the years to keep my retired ewes out of my breeding groups and have found that they seem to resent what they are missing and rebel against my decision. They seem particularly unhappy during both breeding and lambing, making it obvious that they want to join the ewes in breeding groups and eventually in the lambing barn. (I’ve actually had ewes stop eating until I put them into a group, even though they were in a small group of wethers and lambs for company.) I’m now of the opinion that ewes are happiest when they participate in normal flock activities including breeding and lambing, regardless of age (once they’ve lambed at least one time).
I do everything in my power to ensure their pregnancies are successful, but if they die in the process, they’ll have died as they lived: doing the things that sheep do, and being a full part of the flock for their entire lives here. I’ve come to the point that I know life and death come together, and a high quality life for them is more important to me than the longest life possible. I prefer both, but if someone were to ask me, I’d very much prefer to go out of this life doing what I love. So in my flock, that’s what I offer my sheep. The one thing I know is that they are as happy as I can make them — and my heart will have to deal with being occasionally chipped or broken. This is the life of a shepherd… and I am at peace with it. Not always happy, but at peace.