That familiar feeling

There is a feeling that comes with being a shepherd. We all know it even though we don’t always want to admit it. It usually comes after a difficult experience, and particularly after the loss of one of the flock. As we make our way out to the sheep, we feel a mix of trepidation, queasiness, anxiety, and foreboding. It is irrational – there is no reason to believe that simply because something bad happened the day before, something equally bad or worse will come to pass today. Yet, it is there nonetheless. The loss of one flock member makes us realize how fine the line between life and death really is, and reminds us that death is constantly lurking just outside the flock, looking for an opportunity to enter.

Every lamb in this photo has blood on its coat – some more and some less.

It was with this feeling that I took Quaker’s bottles out to the ewes and their lambs on Saturday morning. After finding Qal lying dead the day before, I was acutely aware of the fragility of life. I shook it off as I passed under the evergreen trees that line the separation of space between the lawn around the house and the grazing spaces around the Sheep Barn. I knew after years of shepherding that one loss doesn’t immediately point to the next. And then I entered the barn.

Quaker was there to meet me, poking among my legs for the bottle nipple she knew I brought. Her coat was covered in blood, and I panicked seeing it. I felt her all over, but the blood didn’t seem to be coming from her – and she was panicking at the fact that I wasn’t giving her the expected bottle. I settled into my position on the hay feeder and as she began to make quick work of the bottle, I began to look over the flock. The horror of the scene took a few seconds to register. Before me was blood, and lots of it – everywhere. There was blood on the hay feeder upon which I sat, and on each of the other hay feeders in my sight. There was blood on at least half of the other lambs’ coats, and on the adults as well. January came to greet me with a face half-covered in blood – yet she was not injured. I could feel my heart begin to beat faster, and I purposely calmed my breathing to prevent the panic from rising. I called for Rick and our farm helper Seth – I couldn’t move while feeding the bottle, but couldn’t quell the dread until we figured this out!

There was blood on the feeders and on the sheep!

The more I looked around, the more blood I saw. Every single hay feeder in the barn was smeared with blood, as were the walls. I could see blood on the walls up to about 40″ – the height of our metal dividing panels; higher up it had been splashed or sprayed, and the lower sections had been smeared. Everywhere I looked, there was blood: the grain feeders, the hanging cloth hay bags in the creep area, and on each of the water tubs. As Quaker continued with her second bottle, I scanned the straw looking for a lamb either dead or dying, but I saw none. There was nothing to indicate the source of the blood. Soon after, Rick and Seth arrived and stood in the doorway in shock until I urged them to begin looking for a dead lamb. As soon as Quaker finished, I joined them in the search, but we could find nothing but more areas of drying blood. What was this?

Seth began to scan the fields, wondering whether a coyote had come into the barn and eventually dragged off its prey, yet he saw no small white sheep coat lying anywhere around the barn. Rick and I got all of the lambs up and moving – and they all seemed fine. They all moved away from us; there was no one left when the sheep would clear any given area. You would think that any lamb that had lost so much blood would be obvious, but we could find nothing. Nothing.

We began a concerted effort to find the problem, checking each lamb and ewe one at a time, and that’s when we found him. Qallan is a reddish brown son of Molly, and that was why the source of the blood was not obvious – but he was covered in it. It was obvious that it was coming from his head, and it was still dripping at a good rate, so I called the vet to tell them we were coming. We loaded him up into the crate in the truck and I took off for the clinic.

Qallan, with the cauterized crater in his head, hides the red blood well with his reddish-brown coloring.

I won’t go into the whole scene at the vet – I will spare you all of that. It seems like he may have been eating grain at the grain feeders in the creep area when the raccoon came in to eat. Knowing Qallan, he likely wanted to see whether raccoons head-butt any better than cats, and challenged the new mama raccoon to a head-butting contest – and the raccoon likely let him know that although she can’t head-butt well, she can certainly bite and scratch! Somehow, Qallan had opened up a serious section of his head and broken off the scur (a small, unformed horn) on one side. Head wounds bleed a lot, and his was pretty big, so he bled a lot. The vet decided to cut the scur off of the hanging skin, and then cauterize the whole area. Needless to say, I didn’t think Qallan would be doing much head-butting for a while. It was horrible, but the bleeding stopped. By the time we got home, I gave him a healthy dose of pain-killer and he was ready to nap a bit. It had been a long morning!

Now, three days have passed since our panic with Qallan, and he is essentially back to normal – including head-butting anyone who he thinks is in his way: sheep, lambs, cats, or whatever. He looks terrible to me – like someone scooped his head out with an ice cream scoop – but he doesn’t seem to notice anything off. He is back to his old self – minus one scur and a chunk of skin. As for me, I am still going out to the barn with this same little sense of dread – that well-known queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach that the blood smears did not help to alleviate. I still look over the lambs each day and hold my breath. I know this, too, shall pass – I just need a bit of time.


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