There is no time as full of emotion as lambing season. Whether a shepherd plans on the flock delivering their lambs in the wintery chill of January or in the light spring breezes of May, the time brings with it a roller coaster of highs and lows like no other. It is literally the best of times and the worst of times.
The reason for this is quite simple. Lambing is a time full of hope and new life, as the goals of the past year come to fruition in a new generation. In our modern society, we have largely forgotten the risks of pregnancy-related maternal death in humans, a cause of death that was much more prevalent in centuries past. We must not forget that gestation is a tricky business, and with the limited equipment that shepherds have at their disposal in a barn setting, deaths are not uncommon.
The more lambs a ewe carries, the better the chance that she will deliver the lamb or lambs that the shepherd hopes for. Yet this situation also brings higher risk for the ewe and lambs. Last week, a 4-H friend of ours called in a panic when his adult ewe seemed to be doing poorly within a week of delivery. She had been down for a while with pregnancy toxemia, but he had been working with her to keep her going, feeding her multiple times a day (coming home from school to do so), exercising her limbs, etc. He called me because she seemed to be choking on her grain that day. I arrived at his farm just in time to watch her die. Because she was within a week of delivering her lambs, we tried to save them by performing a crude C-section, guided by the vet on the phone. There were four lambs, and they were only days away from being able to inflate their lungs. As it was, though, they were still a bit too premature to breathe. In one horrible experience, this young shepherd lost not only the adult ewe, but all four lambs too. A true tragedy at any age.
Every shepherd has stories of loss – and the best shepherds remember these stories well. Their losses are seared into their hearts, leaving scar after scar over the years. This past week, we lost Orrie (Molly’s boy, adopted by Ireland) and Opal (Jaylee’s patterned girl) to the bitterly cold temperatures we’ve endured. Our highs are normally in the 40s in late February, but last week our highs were often hovering around zero – and falling well below that when you factored in the windchill. Although we visit the barn every two hours or so when it is this cold, both of these lambs fell asleep in their pens and simply never awoke, falling victim to hypothermia while their mothers watched them sleep. I listened to Ireland call out for her boy for days, refusing to accept the loss. It was heartbreaking for us both.
I am sure these won’t be the only losses we endure this year — yet, the losses are put into perspective by the births. It is hard not to smile as you enter our barn, regardless of your initial mood. There are lambs everywhere, growing bigger and more rounded by the day, filling up on their mother’s milk and the feed we offer in the creep area.
The lambs have their daily patterns, and their playtime coincides with our feeding time. The play begins with only a few of them, but within minutes, all but the youngest lambs have joined in the game — running circles around the feeders, stopping here or there to pant and catch their breath, then taking off again, hopping, streaking, gamboling. Their joy is simple and contagious. They don’t worry about the cold or the risks of life. They are alive, and that is joy enough for them. Eventually, the lambs begin to drop, exhausted. They curl up here and there with mothers or friends, gathering in groups that share body heat in the cold barn as they rest up for future antics.
Yes, this time of year brings both tremendous joy and heartbreaking sadness. I always warn new shepherds that there are great highs and often terrible lows; but I also make sure to tell them that thankfully the joys generally outweigh the sadnesses. One simply need walk into my barn to see evidence of this. Just inside the door, dozens of fat little lambs look up with sparkling, clear eyes to see what excitement has just come into their domain. What happiness can they celebrate now? Is it a new straw bale to climb? A new food to try? The entire world is fresh and new to them, and they see only the joys in life. And regardless of how rough my day has been — no matter the pain of loss — it’s easy to get caught up in their zest for life, even if only for a moment. It is that feeling that gets us through the sadnesses that we so struggle to put behind us.