Adding adult sheep to a flock can be a tricky thing. Lambs are a bit more resilient, integrating fairly quickly and easily as they move from one flock to another, but adults are an entirely different situation. It can take a year or more to really see whether they’ll produce for you—and often the shepherd doesn’t want to invest the time. Ilaina is an interesting example of this, I think.

Ilaina came to our flock as a three-year-old adult in the spring of 2012 with a number of other ewes from the same flock. She is a CVM, one of the Romeldale breed, as were the others we purchased then. Over the past few years, some of the girls from that purchase have stayed and others have moved on, but Ilaina is still here as we’ve waited for her to reach her full potential.

In the fall of 2012 (after she had been here for about six months), we put her into a breeding group. I knew that this group of girls was still adjusting, so I kept my expectations low. She bred and delivered twin ewe lambs that spring – but one of the girls died shortly after birth. This meant that Ilaina had one lamb to her credit—not bad, but certainly not what I would expect. On the other hand, it was her first year and, as I mentioned, it can take awhile for adults to adjust. I gave her a pass and time marched on.

In the spring of 2014 (the next lambing), she gave us a big single ram lamb. He was beautiful and was sold as part of a breeding flock—and this was a good thing, since those ewes who produce breeding-stock-quality lambs have an edge over those who don’t. Once again, it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t what I had hoped; our Romeldale girls should all be producing twins, and many will go on to produce triplets most years. Ilaina was falling short, so I felt we needed to have “the talk.”

I have this talk quite often with my sheep who are not quite living up to my expectations. In this situation, they are perilously close to the cull list, and I hate to move them out without warning. Ilaina got her warning this past spring. Either she needed to produce a nice set of twins annually or she would have to find another home. I hated to put it that way, but I had a number of nice lambs who could produce twins or triplets each year in addition to a lovely fleece. If Ilaina couldn’t, I would have to move one of these lambs into her spot. I gave her one more pass (particularly since it was a drought year and we had many more singles than usual) and decided to wait and see what would happen after one more year.

So once again, Ilaina went into a breeding group this past fall. When December rolled around, we got our first hint at what our girls might produce when our ultrasound technician came to scan the ewe flock. As each ewe moved into position, the tech would call out, “single” or “twins!” or “triplets!!” When Ilaina moved into position, I thought I heard “possible quads!” and everyone turned to squint at the small black-and-white display in front of the technician. She pointed out tiny skulls and vertebrae, “one here, one here, another here, and maybe one here.” Seriously? Quads?!

Quadruplets are not impossible but are certainly not common in most flocks. We have had one set of quads here, born in 2011, who all survived – but only one set. We often have triplets—but quads are rare. If Ilaina had quads, it would certainly raise my eyebrows. On the other hand, the fact that the technician called her with possible quads didn’t mean that she would actually deliver quads. Once you get to three lambs on that tiny screen, it is hard to know whether the fourth is actually another lamb or one of the previous lambs already counted. This is why she always phrases it as “possible quads”—it is very hard to be sure.

Jan. 17, 2015: Ilaina at the alfalfa bale in the high nutrition group.

Jan. 17, 2015: Ilaina at the alfalfa bale in the high nutrition group.

So Ilaina joined the high-nutrition group that day and has been there ever since. Every day when I go into the Sheep Barn to feed this group, I visually scan the ewes: Ilaina, Janaury, Hope, and Ivy, as well as a number of lambs. Over the past weeks, I’ve been struck by how slim Ilaina has been in comparison to the other three adult ewes—and I began to tease her. I started wondering whether she had even three lambs in there. “Perhaps,” I said to her, “you bribed the technician with a handful of your beautiful fiber so that you could get into this high-nutrition group! Maybe you only have another single in there for me. Have you been cheating on us? Did you just want the better feed?”

Ilaina would look at me with her sweet face and keep her secret to herself. How many lambs she carried would be a mystery until the end. But then a week ago, a sign became more obvious: Ilaina began to get wider—and wider.

She is in her last five weeks before delivery (due Feb. 17th), and as such, her lambs are growing at an incredibly fast rate. Each lamb she carries will grow quickly, so her size will reflect each of the fetuses she holds. If there are three or four, she will gain much more quickly than if she has only one. Carrying only one lamb last year, you could hardly tell she was pregnant right up to the day she delivered. Now, however, she is suddenly beginning to “show”—in a big way! She seems wider every time I see her, and her belly is starting to hang. Something is indeed different this year—but how different? Triplets or quads? Only twins? We can’t be sure.

Ilaina will keep her secret until she delivers. There is nothing to do now but watch her widen. We will shear her with the flock next weekend and then look forward to the delivery of her lambs. Regardless, it seems that she has finally settled into our flock, ready to show us what she can produce, and ready to take her place among our Romeldales. She is a sweetheart, and I am so happy that this time my talk may have done the trick.

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