This is the time of year when there isn’t much to do with the flock except sit, wait and — sometimes — worry. The ewes are back in condition after last year’s lambs. We’ve looked closely at each ewe and each ram and paired them for just the lambs we would like to see next year. After breeding season finished, we waited five long weeks until we could ultrasound the ewes to see which of them were actually carrying the lambs we so desire. The scanning helped us divide them into nutritional groups based on the number of fetuses they carry and their expected due dates. Now it’s simply a matter of waiting. We’ve done all we can do, and the key now is patience. We’ll wait until just before lambing to shear the ewes and begin the final countdown to our lambs. It’s a time of expectation and impatience — and thankfully, the holidays also pull at our attention a bit, making the wait more bearable!
Yet you’ll notice that the title of this blog is not only “Sit and wait” — it’s “Sit, wait, and worry.” So where does the worry come in? As shepherds count down the days to lambing, every little hiccup in the life of the flock looks just a bit more serious, since the impact is not only on the particular sheep but also on the lambs she carries. I’m getting calls from shepherds in their first years, hoping to avoid the proverbial train wreck, and I’m looking at my own ewes, trying to do the same. Yes, this period of the shepherding year is definitely one of worry — often unwarranted. But no matter how good things might seem, we fear threats around every corner.
Yesterday I got a text from a new shepherdess about one of her bred ewe lambs, asking me to call because the lamb had suddenly developed a “really swollen jaw.” I was in the middle of chores out in the wind, so calling would have to wait. Yet I knew exactly what was wrong, and I also knew how worried the new shepherdess must have been, so I replied by text: My guess is an abscess, so check for a head where it wants to drain, and check her for a fever. Also look to see if she can open and close her mouth. If not, then she may have injured her jaw rather than the abscess. If you can drain the abscess then do so, being careful to contain the contents so that you can dispose of the yuck away from the sheep – then give an antibiotic for several days. I will call when I finish chores…. Sure enough, by the time I called, she had drained the abscess (and after all of that nastiness, she is now a full-fledged shepherdess!) and the ewe is recovering — crisis averted!
Later in the day I heard from another shepherdess friend, also by text: On our way to the airport! Wow, it is hard for me to leave the sheep…. Once again, that worry is sneaking in. This particular shepherdess has a farm-sitter, and I am on call should they need me, but she is also experienced enough to know that things happen. Every shepherd I know feels responsible lest something go wrong in the flock, particularly this close to lambing! I let her know that she is not the only one feeling that way — and that I’ll be there to help the farm-sitter should anything arise. I know that she is still worrying in sunny California (her destination), but no more than is normal for any shepherd.
I have worries about my own flock. This morning I was feeding in the Sheep Barn, where our high-nutrition group resides. I had already poured the grain into the feed troughs to entice the ewes to the back of the barn while I loaded the hay into the feeders in the front. As I hauled in the first bale of hay, I found Ossidy (a moorit daughter of Millie born this past spring) ignoring the rest of the flock and waiting to munch on the hay I carried — and worry spread through my mind: Why would Ossidy not want to eat her ration of grain? Was she feeling ill? Would other ewes now become ill because of a grain overload, since they had access to Ossidy’s unwanted ration?
Worry consumed me as I filled the hay feeders. I watched and waited, hoping Ossidy would return to the grain — but she didn’t. There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t force her to eat the grain, particularly since the grain never lasts long with the other ewes there! I simply made a mental note to keep an eye on her and the rest of the group, hoping it would all work out okay.
Speaking of the rest of the group, regular readers might recall that I’ve also been worried about Harmony. She is in the group with Ossidy because Harmony had gotten unusually thin. I worried about her for a couple of weeks, not knowing why she had dropped so much weight or why she was standing in the corner of the barn by herself, grinding her teeth in pain. I never did figure out what was wrong, but it finally seemed to resolve earlier this week. Suddenly Harmony seems to have returned to normal, showing a healthy appetite for any feed I might bring. Finally, this is one worry I can set aside!
So like most shepherds at this time of year, I try to distract myself with holiday preparations. But in between I continue to sit, wait, and worry. Thankfully, lambs will be arriving in less than 60 days, which means that any current concerns are short-lived!