Every once in a while, we have a lamb that surprises us. Their genes come together in such a way that I can only look and wonder how this happened — how this particular lamb came to be. Peter is one of these lambs.
We actually knew last fall that Peter might be a bit different when the Romney breeding groups were a problem. Two of the ram lambs proved too young to breed, and the older ram ended up too sick with cancer to work. In the end, I made the only choice I could at such a late date: I pulled out all of the other rams, joined all of the groups together, and then released our only healthy adult ram, Martin, into the group for the last couple of weeks of our breeding season.
It sounds quite simple when I put it that way, but then I started to think about what I had done. Martin had many daughters in those groups, and he was in there breeding them. Even worse, his mother was there too, and he had access to her. When we finally pulled the breeding groups apart in November, I suspected that Hannah’s pregnancy wouldn’t stick. I knew that in cases of such close breeding, the results can be either very bad (including pre-term abortion) or equally good. I anticipated the negative so I wouldn’t be disappointed.
Surprisingly, Hannah did deliver a single ram lamb, Peter. Yet when I saw him in the straw, I could see that he was different from any Romney I had seen before. Although both Martin and his mother are white, this lamb was had lots of gray and silver on his head and legs — and some even in the wool on his back. Instead of mothering him as she usually does with her newborns, Hannah stood back from this lamb and stared. She didn’t lick at him or try to encourage him to get up. She simply watched as I cleaned him off. Eventually she came to him, but very tentatively. I saw his odd coloring, but she saw something more — and she wasn’t sure she wanted to commit to him. Thankfully, Hannah settled in and began to encourage her young son to live, but it took a while.
Peter had a rough start. Unlike most lambs, he didn’t stand up for quite a long time. About an hour after birth, I finally held him up under this mother for his first meal. As I did so, it was obvious that even though he couldn’t get his coordination together, he sure had a healthy appetite. We usually classify our newborn lambs as “slow,” “normal,” or “sharks” when it comes to their nursing behavior. And Peter was a shark! All I had to do was get him in the vicinity of his mother’s teat and he lunged forward, sucking for all he was worth. He couldn’t move himself around very well, but the incentive was there. As minutes turned into hours, I finally decided to go back to bed, even though he was still not very mobile. Sometimes, a lamb just has to work things out on their own, and I figured that he would either figure it out or not.
The next morning Peter was still alive. He was not yet very mobile, but he was trying. He did more flinging his body in a direction than walking, and I noticed that he had other deficits. He acted very rubbery and seemed to have little control over his muscles. If he fell, he might end up with his back legs in one direction, his front legs in the other direction, and his head tucked under his body, facing his tail! Unlike most lambs, he had not developed the integrity of his body in the hours after birth — he could easily land any which way — and that was a huge danger for him. I watched on the monitor as Hannah would slowly nudge his back legs over and uncover his head, putting him into a position where he might be able to get up. She was nothing if not patient with her new son.
After a week, Peter began to act more like a newborn lamb. His deficits began to disappear and it became obvious that he would indeed survive. I kept Peter and Hannah jugged for a total of nine days (two days is typical for an experienced mother with a single) until I was assured he could manage in a larger group. When I mixed the last group of lambs together (including January’s triplets), I finally let Peter and Hannah into the group to socialize. By this time, Peter had caught up to January’s lambs, born only two days before. He could bounce and gambol without falling over, and he was beginning to climb on his mother for a one-lamb version of king-of-the-mountain. He was ready for company!
I opened up the barn this past Friday and allowed all the lambs and their mothers outside — another big move for Peter and the youngest lambs. In spite of the many risks, they have all done just fine. Peter is still quite unusual, both in coloring and behavior. He would be hard to identify as mentally slow now that he has matured a bit, and his coloring is now an interesting combo of black, gray, white, and orangey-tan (on his ears). Although both Martin and Hannah are quite shy and stand-offish, Peter is a very mellow guy who is not easily spooked. So far, he is very correct in his structure and seems to have beautiful fleece. There is a good possibility that Peter may stay to replace Martin in our flock. We will, of course, have to see how he grows, but right now I have my eye on this boy!