Saving Patton

Good shepherding involves a certain store of factual information filed away in the recesses of your brain. Obviously the more you know about your sheep, the better choices you can make for their care. Over the years, I have done a lot of research and have gained a wealth of knowledge, and when the time comes, I must pull it out of my memory banks, weigh the various options against the data coming from my own flock, and in the end, try to choose the correct path through the obstacles before us. My flock depends on me to do this — and on occasion it can be a matter of life and death.

Earlier this week, something different happened. A situation arose, for the first time ever since I’ve cared for our flock, that had a solution other than rational thought. This time instinct pushed me forward at top speed and left me marveling long afterwards over what had happened — and from where such confidence of action had come. It hadn’t been accompanied by the usual angst of making a life-or-death decision, perhaps because it wasn’t a conscious decision at all. But let me start at the beginning.

Early this past Monday morning, Netty delivered her seemingly perfect twins, Patty and Patton. Patty came first, weighing 12.2 lbs, and was quickly joined by Patton weighing 12.3 lbs. I was present at the birth and everything went well — the lambs came fairly quickly and Netty seemed to be bonding well with both of them. I moved the happy family to the jugs (pens where mothers can bond with their new lambs) and continued my barn chores as I kept an eye on all of the new arrivals.

Within an hour or two, it became obvious that something was  amiss. Netty was definitely developing a preference for Patty and was beginning to push Patton aside when he came to nurse. This can sometimes happen, but I wanted to prevent an all-out shunning of the poor little guy, so I decided to force the issue by holding Netty in place to allow him to nurse. I know from experience that once the ewe’s milk passes all the way through her lambs (24-48 hours), a ewe will often accept a lamb she is initially not so happy to have. I visited the jug every hour or two and allowed him to feed, hoping that it would work as well as it had earlier this year with Kaylen.

As the hours passed, Netty became more and more vicious towards her son, using such force to butt him away that he began to hide behind the water bucket to avoid her assaults. I began to worry for his safety, and I started to bring out bottles for him, spending hours at the jug, trying to enforce peace. I finally stole Netty’s favorite, Patty, and hid her in my powder room where she couldn’t be seen or heard. Doing this leaves the mother with only one choice: love the lamb you have or give up motherhood altogether. Knowing that the instincts to mother are strong, I put my hopes there and waited. After five hours of living without Patty, Netty chose to mother her son. I watched on the monitor as she nudged him in to nurse and as she lay with him in slumber. After another hour or two, I sprayed Patty with a good dose of horrid perfume and took her back to the barn. Before returning her to the pen, I sprayed down her brother with the same perfume — and then spritzed Netty’s nose for good measure. I wanted to make sure that there was as little as possible to differentiate the two lambs.

Netty, however, knew the difference. For the first half hour, she accepted them both, but then the cracks in the relationship began to reappear. Within a couple of hours, poor little Patton was once again Netty’s punching bag. I was in the barn watching Myth labor to deliver her own twins when I decided to remove him from Netty’s pen for his own safety. He was beginning to struggle to breathe, whether because he had been injured or because he had given up the will to live. Anytime a sheep or human came close, he hunkered down, ready for the abuse he expected would come. My decision made him safer, but it meant that he would now be a bottle ram destined for the meat industry — a true heartache for me. (See the blog “Filling in the background,” dated March 6, 2015 for more on this topic.)

With Patton inside my jacket, I sat down in the drop pen to watch Myth laboring and occasionally calling for her unborn lambs. Every time she would call, amniotic fluid would arc out over a foot behind her. And that’s when inspiration hit and I sprang into action without thinking.

I quickly stripped the tiny coat off Patton, tied his front right leg to the rear left with twine from my pocket, then dunked him into the water tub in the drop pen, careful to keep his head above water. I squeegeed him off and carefully moved him behind Myth, holding him “in the line of fire” of the next stream of amniotic fluid. In moments, Myth turned around and spotted Patton in my hands, and a new family was born. Myth was so eager for her first lamb to arrive that she assumed this poor rejected boy was hers. As I lay him in the straw, she began to murmur to him and lick him off as her own. I removed the leg tie and prayed that her attentiveness to Patton would continue after her own lambs arrived.

Eventually Myth delivered two boys of her own: Poseidon and Pluto, weighing 13.7 lbs and 12 lbs, respectively. She had a difficult time with Patton initially. When she turned towards him, he would shrink away, expecting blows to follow. The other two boys began to reply to their mother’s murmurs with vocalizations of their own, but Patton remained mute — afraid that sounds might draw attention that would bring more violence. Even though she had her hands full with her own boys, Myth never gave up on poor traumatized Patton. She mothered each of her boys equally, licking, nudging, and encouraging all three. As I watched, I was afraid that my intervention had come too late, that Patton was beyond help, that he had been so traumatized that this situation would bring only heartache to Myth when he died of either injuries or lack of will to live.

Born 3/1/2016: Romeldale/CVM Myth with Poseidon (R-left) and Pluto (R-right) and adopted Patton (R-center)

Born 3/1/2016: Romeldale/CVM Myth with sons Poseidon (left) and Pluto (right) and adopted Patton (in center) in their “puppy pile”

I knew Myth might not have enough milk for all three. Yet, her genetics are good: her mother, Hope, typically gives us triplets and always feeds them all. I hoped that if I helped Myth feed her three for the first few days, her own milk supply would respond to the additional sucking and would naturally increase.

Myth’s constant attention began to work wonders on Patton. Between her strong mothering and the presence of two rammy siblings who were focused on play and wanted to include their very shell-shocked brother, Patton began to come out of his shell. He stopped hiding behind the water bucket and joined his siblings in a “puppy pile” as they slept. He learned that approaching Myth when he was hungry brought only filling milk and not a terrible beating. He began to wander the jug with his brothers, and his ragged breathing began to normalize. It was obvious that Patton had regained his will to live.

Today, Patton is a happy member of Myth’s triplet boys. As they jump and play, you would never guess that only days before he had mere hours to live. This couldn’t have turned out better, and that truly warms my heart.


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  • Abbie says:

    Do you know why Netty rejected Patton? Is favoritism common in her family line? Was Netty a good mama last year?

    • Dee says:

      No, Netty’s lamb died last year – and he was a ram, too. He was born in a very cold week and just didn’t get up often enough to nurse, dying of hypothermia. There is no history of this, and we can never know for sure why she decided she didn’t like him – but this is not a good thing for her as she is an immediate addition to the culling list. Whether she stays or goes now hangs in the balance.

  • Terry says:

    This blog gives rise to a couple of questions. Has a ewe rejected one of her lambs before, and then the next breeding season accepted all her offspring? Is this something that might cause you to remove this ewe from your flock, or does she get another chance? Can you give any explanation why a ewe rejects her lamb?
    With both births coming close together that seems to rule out time between deliveries,

    • Dee says:

      Sometimes we know why and sometimes we don’t – and in this case, I don’t know for sure. He does look a bit different, so perhaps there is some birth defect that she can pick up and I don’t consider a weakness at this point. Ewes will sometimes leave their weakest lamb to die rather than let that one lamb drink milk that her other lambs need for survival. I have had ewes who reject their lambs for various reasons: color of the lamb, sharp teeth (we file these a bit and usually the ewe will take the lamb back if this is the case), birth defects, too much time passes between the first and the second, so the first wanders away, etc. I have had ewes who did this once and then were fine the next year – but this is usually the case with very young ewes who just don’t understand what has happened to them – and with some patience, I can usually get them to accept their lamb. This behavior from Netty does put her on the cull list for this year, so her fate now hangs in the balance. I will have to evaluate how many ewes are on the list for this year, how many lambs I want to move in, and which of the ewes on the list are the “bottom of the barrel” of the entire lot – these will be the ones that will be sold as culls. Netty did not do herself any favors by being so insistent on killing her son. And Myth has earned a gold star in my book – much like her mama, Hope, always can be counted on to step up and do what needs doing!

  • Jane says:

    The stories this lambing season are really heart tugging. I am so glad your instincts did something wonderful for this lamb.

  • Erika says:

    So glad to hear how this works! Have you ever seen this reluctance to accept a lamb be a genetic trait? ie. Do you think a daughter of a ewe who rejects her lambs would be accepting or more likely to reject?

    • Dee says:

      I’ve heard that it can be, but in my experience, if they come from good mothering lines, then it is usually limited to that one particular ewe – and often to that one particular year, depending on circumstances. If there is good reason for the rejection, then I will often give the ewe a second chance. If, however, there is no reason that I can discern for the rejection, I refuse to take the chance that it might randomly occur again and that ewe ends up on the cull list. It sounds harsh, but good or bad mothering is a life or death trait, and I refuse to risk future lambs when so many of our ewes go so far above and beyond to keep our many lambs alive against the odds!

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