Today marks a major milestone in the life of our flock — and in particular, the lambs. Our pregnant ewes had daily access to the outside until they were close to delivery, at which point I locked them into the drop pen to ensure their lambs were delivered in the relative comfort of the barn. After delivery, the new family is moved to the jugs for bonding and, after a few days, into a mixing pen where they learn to find each other among a small group. The mixing pen is still within the confines of the barn, since most make it to the mixing pen long before our severe winter weather turns towards spring. Even after those in the mixing pen are added to the larger sheep population of mothers and their lambs, they’re all still locked within the barn until I make the decision to release them.
I’m a tough sell when it comes to letting the little ones outside. Something panics my heart when I think about sending tiny newborn lambs into the frigid Iowa winter weather. I know they carry their coats on their backs, and I know they were bred to survive horrible weather — but still, I just can’t do it. Besides, I know the evils that can lurk outside the barn. Our neighborhood is not only home to foxes and coyotes, but we can see the occasional bobcat (and once even a cougar!) or eagle. A small lamb can easily be carried off as food for a newborn eagle family — and as much as I love to watch the Decorah eagle cam, I certainly don’t want to see one of my lambs invited to dinner! As a result, for many of our lambs, their first month or more may be spent within the confines of the barn. And they really don’t know there is anything else.
Eventually our flock outgrows the allotted space inside the barn — as they did a couple of weeks ago — and so we “extend” the barn, opening the big garage door to the south and adding a small penned-in area on the driveway in which they can sun and run and play. It is a temporary solution to a bigger problem: the oldest lambs are close to weaning. They feel the constraints of the barn and are ready for more. It’s time to let them outside.
As the weather becomes warmer, I feel the pressure to let them out. It becomes more dangerous for the youngest lambs as the mothers and older lambs run and play in the driveway pen. I know they need more space, and I debate giving them freedom as my eyes scan the skies for dark ominous clouds or soaring eagles.
Then comes that day each spring when I am overwhelmed with the warmth of the sun on my face and the smell of spring on the breeze. There is something about a sunny spring day that beckons, and I want to share it with the flock. It is on such a day that I inevitably look out over the crowd of ewes and their lambs and make the decision — as I did today — to finally open up. I know that once the decision is made, taking it back is not a possibility; putting the lambs back into the barn is like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube. As I wander toward the door that leads to the pasture, the ewes begin to call. They know where I am headed, and they want out!
As the door opens, the crush towards the sunshine carries many an unsuspecting lamb out into the spring breeze. They flow out like water, pouring over the hillside and down into the grass that awaits them. The ewes gobble the tender green shoots as the lambs adjust their eyes to the bright sunshine. Eventually the lambs realize that there are no walls and no panels. It takes only one or two lambs to begin the chase, but within minutes, most of the older lambs are running, in and out of the barn, up and down the hills of the pasture. Never before have they had so much space, and they suddenly feel so free!
The newborn lambs are less comfortable. They linger within the barn, calling for their mothers, sure that they have been abandoned. One by one, the newest mothers come back to the barn, sorry to leave the flock outside but knowing their babies are afraid — they can hear the calling. Yet they don’t come to stay; they come to coax and cajole. They want their little lambs outside where they can watch them. Honestly, I want them out there too. I know there are risks, but we have llamas for protection, and I know the air quality is better out there. I know they will be okay. Like the little lambs, I too have to trust.
So the Peeper Hollow flock is once again free in the spring sunshine. The older lambs are playing tag with Howie and Martin, their guardian llamas, while their mothers enjoy their first nibbles of spring. The new lambs have cuddled along the fence, heads raised to the sun, and have fallen asleep. Yes, I always dread this day — but when it finally comes, it is a good day, and I know there is no looking back.