This is a high-risk time of year for our sheep. Not only has our flock more than doubled in size over the past few months with the arrival of so many lambs, but many other factors also increase the risks. Coyote mothers are now hunting for both themselves and their own babies. With the nicer weather, neighborhood dogs are once again wandering, ready to chase defenseless sheep. Shifting weather patterns, from warm to cold and back again, can spread pneumonia among our lambs — often silently, since there are no obvious symptoms until they are near death. We even have to worry about rustlers slinking into our fields and making off with one of our lambs, as happened a couple of years ago!
The potential risks are not only in the environment but in the lambs themselves. They are now old enough that most of them no longer hang with their mothers throughout the day. Instead, they feel independent enough to run in similar-age groups, playing on the manure pile or rock pile and running across the fields. They are independent enough to run into trouble but often not old enough to recognize it or find a way out. They fall into holes, and they still don’t realize that dogs bite. Their mothers try to protect them, but in reality, the lambs are beginning to pull away — weaning is just around the corner, and they want their freedom.
All of these things come together to create a state of risk for our lambs. To combat this, I am outside and looking over the flock multiple times each day. Is that a slipped coat lying in the field or a downed lamb? Is that newspaper blown against the border or a lamb caught in the electric fence? Anything out of the ordinary grips my heart with a sense of dread. Please, oh please, let that be the remnants of a cardboard box and not a dead lamb!
I’m constantly on guard. What looks innocent can be terrible, and yet the opposite can also be true. Yesterday, I looked out over the Rock Pasture (where the sheep are now grazing) and saw a flat white something in the grass — a dropped coat, perhaps? I called the sheep in for their grain and studied the group, trying to find the coatless lamb. All the lambs had coats, which left me thinking the worst. I took the dogs out for a walk to investigate, and as we drew near, the flat white thing in the grass was the exact shape of a lamb lying down — but it had no legs, and no head. My heart seized in anguish. I hated the thought of trying to identify a dead lamb without a face or eartag, using only body markings. As I drew near, I realized it was a piece of fiberglass skylight from a nearby barn, torn loose by our recent strong winds. Ah, relief! No dead lamb to identify; no body to haul back and bury.
This morning I walked the pastures with a friend who is looking to buy a flock. The gate had blown shut, and we needed to open it to allow the ewes access to the grain we had poured into their feeders. The ewes crowded around the four-foot gate as we opened it. My friend then asked, “Is that a lamb still there under the tree?”
I looked over and, indeed, there was a colored Romney lamb lying beneath the tree, unmoving. All of the sheep left the pasture, but this lamb still lay there, head resting against the high-tensile fencing, immobile. My head swam with all sorts of terrible thoughts. Was the lamb cast and unable to move and get up? Was it down with pneumonia? Had it been bitten by a dog or coyote? Broken its legs? It was only moments before we drew close enough to see that the lamb was Oui, Kali’s daughter. From that distance, she seemed uninjured, but we continued our trek ever closer. As we came near, I called out to the lamb, and she suddenly opened her eyes and saw us coming closer. She hopped up, aware of being alone — terribly, dangerously alone — and ran towards the flock, which was now following us across the pasture. Oui was fine; she had simply been deeply asleep on this gloriously sunny spring day.
I know the risks are there, waiting for my lambs. Yet, I have to remember that they are sheep — not pets. I keep them guarded by llamas and confined within carefully monitored and hopefully safe spaces; but in the end, they must learn to make their own way in the world of our fields and barns. I will keep watch and do my best to keep them safe and healthy, but inevitably, the risks will still be there. I know I worry more than they do; they seem blessedly unaware. The lambs play and gambol, or they sleep in the sunshine, even as I imagine all the terrible things that could happen. I find myself needing to learn from my flock and turn away from the horrors of what might be. Because I know this, today I will try to walk the dogs without thinking of injured or dead lambs as I look out across the flock. Instead, I will walk in the breeze and soak up the sun. For just that one hour, I will let all the risks go and become one with the flock, enjoying this beautiful spring day with my four-legged friends.