Life and death

There is no time in the shepherd’s year that is as emotion-filled as lambing. Some of the stories are heart-warming, others are edge-of-your-seat exciting, and yet others are heart-wrenching. This is, unfortunately, one of the latter; but I post it to balance out the view you may have of my life. Yes, frolicking lambs are cute and fun — but a shepherd must also deal with the other side of things.

Gabby was marked by our ram, Nahe, on Sunday, October 4th, a sunny and breezy fall day. On that day, her gestational clock began to tick down the days to full term. Romeldales, of which she is a beautiful breed example, generally carry their lambs for about 150 days. It ranges from 146 to 154 days, with each ewe having her own time clock of what is full term for her.

When we ultrasounded our ewes in December, Gabby scanned with triplets, which was not unusual for her. I will admit that I was quite pleased, since I knew Gabby was getting on in age and I wasn’t sure how many more lambs we would get from her. I was hoping for at least one more ewe lamb before Gabby retired. We put her into the high-nutrition group and began to await lambing.

Gabby’s gestation was due to reach 150 days on Wednesday, March 2, and because she tried to steal Kaylen’s lambs nearly two weeks ago, I put her safely into the drop pen long before she was actually due. I knew she was very big, and the drop pen offered her a bit more space and less conflict with other cranky ewes. There, she watched one ewe after another deliver her lambs and move into the jugs, and Gabby remained in the drop pen, awaiting her turn.

This past Friday afternoon, it was obvious that Gabby was in the early stages of labor. She dug up the drop-pen bedding and paced around restlessly. Things were happening, and she was eager to greet her lambs. I completed my afternoon feeding and chores with one eye on the drop pen where Gabby labored, knowing that with each hour that passed, the lambs were under more and more stress. I hesitated to interfere, because premature assistance brings its own share of issues. Over the years, I’ve learned to be more patient.

Gabby’s labor progressed into the evening, and a friend who is looking to buy his own flock this spring came to watch and help. By 11 p.m., the first sign of problems came: a big blood clot the size of a closed fist slid silently into the straw behind her. This was not normal. I called the vet. Should I go in and assist, or should I wait? He sleepily suggested that we wait to see how it progressed, but we should also watch the amniotic fluids. I knew that if they turned dark, I had no option but to assist.

We watched quietly for another couple of hours as her labor progressed, and finally it became apparent to me that Gabby no longer had the muscle strength to move her triplets through the birth canal. I gloved up, wet my glove with lube, and slowly slid my gloved hand in to find out what was going on.

There was no lamb in the birth canal, but the fluid was getting dark. There was no turning back, so I felt around as gently as I could, trying to “see” with my fingers. The first lamb I encountered had its rear legs very near the birth canal, so I considered this the first volunteer. A lamb cannot be safely delivered in this position by the ewe since the cord will break before its head reaches the air for its first breath. Left to themselves, a lamb in this position being delivered without assistance will inhale when the cord breaks, drowning in its own fluids. I smoothly but rapidly pulled the lamb out and down, and there lay a beautiful ewe lamb, Papaya, lying in the straw. Gabby quickly moved to clean off her new lamb, but the lamb lay lifeless, never drawing its first breath. No matter how hard we worked to revive the lamb, it was not to be — and there were more lambs to deliver. My focus shifted to the next.

The second lamb I encountered was also coming rear legs first. I could feel the life in her as I pulled her from the warmth of Gabby’s body. This ewe lamb, Peaches, also lay quietly in the straw — but I knew that looks could be deceiving. We rubbed and rubbed, feeling a bit of movement here or there. Eventually she took a shuddering breath, and we celebrated a live lamb! Knowing that Gabby was carrying three, I moved to help deliver the last one.

It was coming with front hooves in the birth canal but its head turned back. Time and again I pulled its head forward for delivery, and each time it pulled back and turned, leaving only its front hooves to come forward. I knew the lamb couldn’t come this way, and so I worked to turn him. When I finally got “nose and toes” lined up, I helped to deliver the ram lamb, Parmesan, but he lay lifeless in the straw as we worked with Gabby to clean him off.

Gabby encouraging Peaches (E) to fight and live

Gabby encourages Peaches (E) to fight and live.

In the end, Gabby moved to the jugs with only Peaches; the other two never drew a breath. As the night turned to early morning, Peaches’ labored breathing told me that things were not good. Gabby wasn’t due until next Wednesday, and she had obviously delivered too early. Each ewe has her own gestational length, and lambs born even a day or two early have lungs too immature to support life. No matter how much we offered colostrum or body warmth, if Peaches couldn’t breathe, she wouldn’t live. Four hours later, as Hattie welcomed her own new lamb, Phoebe, Gabby murmured to her dead Peaches.

This was Gabby’s last lambing. She will no longer be exposed to the rams in the fall. She is no longer able to deliver her own lambs, and her bag can no longer offer them nourishment if I assist. She will now move into the one position we hold for our beloved “Granny” of the flock, the long-producing ewe we just can’t bear to part with. Her daughters Nelly and Olive will continue to produce lovely lambs and fleeces from her bloodline, and Gabby can retire here on the farm. She can curl up with the lambs of other ewes and frolic with them in the pastures during her old age.

It’s while lambing that a shepherd feels both life and death most acutely. We eventually realize that even with all our knowledge and skill, we have only minor control — and only tears for the ones we lose. My heart is heavy, but the lambs continue to come, and I have little time to mourn.

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  • Bev says:

    I was so sorry to read this news. I had so hoped this year the lambing season would be without a heartbreaking event. My sincere condolences to you and to poor Gabby. I will take comfort in the fact that at least you didn’t lose Gabby as well because I know she means a lot to you. And I don’t for a minute think your farming life is either physically or emotionally easy…far from it. I think you work exceptionally hard and death is all to common to your way of life; I just admire you so much!

  • Terry says:

    Because of what happened with Gabby’s
    pregnancy, will that change what you might
    do next breeding season with your “H” girls like Harmony?

    • Dee says:

      No, each of the girls has her own timeline, and one of the reasons Gabby delivered prematurely this year is that she has always had very big lambs. Carrying and delivering 40 pounds of lambs every year is hard on the body: the ligaments that support the belly, the muscles that push out the lambs, and the udder that must produce the milk to feed them. None of our other ewes have been quite this productive, so they should be just fine for more years of lambs without issue. Remember, Zoe delivered her triplets at 13 and her last lamb at 14. They can continue to be productive for many years.

  • Erika says:

    I am so sorry for you and Gabby. Taking a dead lamb away from a ewe is one of the saddest things I have done. We had a stillborn ewe lamb from triplets born last night. And I am kicking myself for not checking on her sooner than 2 1/2 hours from the previous check when she looked fine, no sign of labor. And now the mama has no desire to let the lambs nurse. I’ve been haltering her to keep her from head butting them away from her udder.

    • Dee says:

      Thank you. You have come to experience one of the major complications of the lambing season: it is nearly impossible to know how long labor will last! Some ewes can take hours, while others give only very subtle signs until they are literally pushing out their lamb! Eventually, most of us begin to recognize the signs of early labor, which at least gives us a bit more warning! I’ve emailed you privately with my number – please feel free to call and we can discuss your stubborn ewe and her hungry lambs!

  • twinsetellen says:

    Heartbreaking, but the only way to avoid sad events like this is to not have lambs at all. Just like the rest of life – to experience the peaks, we risk the valleys. Thank you for sharing all sides of shepherding with us.

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