We always have a number of friends and strangers who come out to help with shearing. Some have flocks of their own, others are interested in the fiber that we produce, and still others come for the joy of working closely with the animals and taking part in the camaraderie of the day. I try to make sure that everyone has an outline of how the day will go and what to look for in our wool and our sheep as the day progresses — encouraging them to bring things to my attention, if needed, in the midst of the controlled chaos of the day.
When we sheared last Saturday, one of the new shepherdesses called my attention to our white Romeldale ewe, January, as she was released back into the pen of ewes. Her coat seemed to fit lengthwise but obviously not side-to-side, since her belly hung out on either side. Since January was the first sheared that day, the people who coated wanted to know whether there was something wrong. Was this normal? The short answer is maybe. Although it isn’t really normal, it’s also not abnormal. It has to do with our ewe January — and other very productive ewes — who have repeatedly provided lambs to the flock.
If you look carefully at Monday’s blog, you will see January (now almost six years old) front and center, right behind the panels that separated the sheep from the shearers. January was a bottle lamb who lived in the house for weeks, and so she feels perfectly comfortable around people. Since we shear white wool before colored and Romeldale before Romney, she fell into the first group and was happy to volunteer. That was is not “normal.” Sheep do not normally volunteer for shearing!
January is a big ewe who has normally scanned with twins every year since she was first bred. But in all but the first two years, she has produced a set of big triplets. Even though she is quite long-bodied, her lambs are so large that her belly seems monstrous, hanging very low and swinging a bit as she walks. This year is even more unusual for January. Rather than scanning with twins, she has finally scanned with triplets — and I’m not sure what this means for her. Since she has always scanned with twins and given us triplets, I can’t help but wonder whether she has now scanned with triplets because she is carrying quads. Her mother, Genoa, is the only ewe who has ever given us quads, so it isn’t impossible that January would follow in her mother’s hoofprints. The only way to know is to wait and see.
In any case, January has been in the high-nutrition group for months, and we are hoping for the best. Yet on shearing day, when the people coating our sheep brought her to my attention, I looked her over carefully to make sure there was nothing amiss. I noted that she was very large in her pregnancy, particularly considering that she is not due for another six weeks. But the main thing I noticed is that my good friend, January, is no longer a youngster. She has the look of a ewe who has been around for a while.
Since January produces so many big lambs every year, over time the ligaments that hold up her belly have stretched and slackened. Like most older ewes, her belly now hangs well below where it did when she was a young yearling or two-year-old. In past years, as the tiny fetuses have grown to large lambs ready for birth, they stretched her uterus, the surrounding muscles and tissues, and the skin over her abdomen; and after so many repetitions, it no longer springs back into place. The bottom line is that January looks like a productive older ewe — and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s what we hope for from each of our girls.
Like most of my ewes, January is never so happy as when she has her lambs by her side. There are times — as with January’s mother, Genoa — when ewes don’t want all of the many lambs that they have delivered. Ewes with triplets or quads can sometimes decide that they want only one or two of their brood, and then they harshly push the others away. January, however, has a strong mothering instinct and keeps a close eye on all of her babies, whether twins (as in the early days) or her now more common triplets. She feeds and mothers them all, bringing them to see me when I enter the barn each day.
So the bottom line is that, no, there is nothing wrong with January. In fact, there is a lot that’s right about this girl. She is big and sturdy in body and carries lots of lovely wool and gorgeous lambs every year. She is cooperative and helpful with the flock and a joy to be around. Oh, and she is good at keeping the number of lambs she carries secret until the time of their delivery. However many babies she delivers this year, it is fairly likely that at least one will find a home here in our flock. January is quite extraordinary, but like all of us, she is getting older each year — and it’s simply beginning to show.