The teeny-tiny ones

This time of year is full of miracles. Five months after putting together the breeding groups, new life appears in our barn nearly daily, showing traits I could only imagine or hope for a mere 150 days ago.

Yet there are times during lambing when something elevates a particular birth to an even more incredible level. After fifteen years and hundreds of lambs, I thought I had pretty much seen it all — but I was wrong. Last Friday we had a surprise that left both Rick and me speechless. And it still leaves us in awe.

Late last Friday afternoon, it looked as if Natasha might be in the early stages of labor. Knowing that she was still a lamb herself and that it tends to take longer during the first birth, I figured we had hours to wait. Rick and I made ourselves comfortable in the house, eating dinner and planning to head back out for the delivery later in the evening.

I found out in the December ultrasound that Natasha carried twins, but I later suspected that she had lost one of them, since she didn’t seem particularly large in comparison to the other bred ewe lambs who carried singles. She was obviously developing a bag, but her overall size made me think that she now carried only one — and likely a small one at that. She had been fed well for two lambs throughout her pregnancy, but I came to wonder whether she had needed it.

When I checked the monitor at about 7:00 to see how things were progressing, I saw Natasha with head bent to the ground, licking at something. Ewes often lick at the straw where they lay during labor, attracted to the amniotic fluid they have released. But this didn’t look like straw; it had form, albeit very tiny. Normally I would have immediately called out “Lambs!” but this was too small for a lamb. I stood and stared at the spot on the monitor, trying to determine what it was.

Suddenly I saw movement not far from that tiny form. Now there were two spots, identical in size — and they were both moving! I did shout, “Lambs!” at that point — and Rick and I were both off to the barn to welcome our new arrivals!

When we first saw Natasha’s twins, I thought that there was no way they could survive. They were so very tiny, and it was so very cold in the barn. The firstborn, a ewe lamb we named Odessa, had been born some time before and was cold to the touch, hardly moving as we checked her temperature by inserting a finger into her mouth. She felt ice cold, and her three inches of umbilical cord hung like a frozen stick underneath her. Without warming, this lamb would not survive, so I tucked her into my clothing to share body heat as we worked with the second, more active, lamb — a ram that we named Oleg.

Oleg was shivering but not yet so cold as his sister. I gently dried this miniature lamb, attached a clip to his navel to keep out bacteria, and then weighed him: only 3.3 pounds, just over a quarter of our average birth weight last year. He was so small that none of our baby coats fit him; I used the smallest coat and cut it down to size.

Natasha was an attentive mother. She had delivered her lambs alone and then carefully cleaned each one off as it arrived. It’s imperative with small lambs and cold temperatures that nursing begin right away in order to maintain body heat. Although Oleg had gotten to the teat in time (with my help), Odessa had not. Her mother had been busy birthing Oleg during the critical time during which Odessa needed to nurse. I hoped that nestling her deep within my clothing would help her regain some of that lost warmth.

Little 3.7-pound Odessa eventually warmed up, but I wasn’t sure whether she would survive. The cold had taken its toll; her limbs were limp and she had no will to stand. Without standing, she could not nurse — and if she didn’t nurse, she would be dead within hours. I supported her underneath Natasha so Odessa could fill up on colostrum, and then I set her in the straw of the pen, hoping the full tummy would recharge her and get her going.

Natasha on Saturday as a bottle lamb in the house.

Odessa on Saturday as a wandering  bottle lamb in the house.

Yet when we checked on the little family a few hours later, Odessa was once again cold and limp, barely opening her eyes when I scooped her up. I again nestled her under my shirt and against my skin, but now I had a difficult decision to make. Taking her into the house would keep her warmer and allow her to gain strength in a friendlier environment, but taking her from her mother would likely mean that she would have no family. Her mother was very young, and it was unlikely that she would take her daughter back after a number of days. If I took Odessa away, I would essentially make her an orphan with no one to look after her once she was back in the barn. On the other hand, if I left her there, she would likely freeze. What a choice!

Of course we chose life for Odessa and brought her into the house. Because she was so small, she couldn’t drink much colostrum at a time (only about 1.5 ounces per feeding), so we made sure she got a bottle every two hours around the clock. It was critical that she gain strength to eventually return to the barn.

She slowly gained strength and weight in her new environment. She began to stand in her padded box, calling when hungry or bored and enjoying some freedom to wander while the dogs were out for their walks. Meanwhile, Natasha doted on her son Oleg, encouraging him to nurse and licking at him almost constantly. He, too, grew stronger and a bit bigger. The weather warmed over the weekend, making his survival even more likely. It soon became time to consider moving Odessa back outside.

Natasha's teeny-tiny lambs seem to be doing well in the barn now.

Natasha’s teeny-tiny lambs seem to be doing well in the barn now.

Putting a bottle lamb back into the barn can be a scary thing. I’ve invested time, effort, and love into the lamb; and now I must trust that the flock will watch out for her. My initial plan was to take her back to her mother, hoping she would allow her daughter back into the jug/pen. Yet experience told me this was not likely. After a lamb has been gone for some days, most sheep will no longer recognize their scent and will not allow them back. Most bottle lambs wander through the flock with no adult to stand up for them, and it makes my heart ache to watch them pushed around.

But Natasha surprised me. She immediately recognized her firstborn, chortling to her and licking at her as I held her for inspection. In minutes, I had taught Odessa how to get milk from her mother’s teat rather than a bottle. The family was reunited!

I originally didn’t write about our teeny-tinies because I wasn’t sure they would survive. Yet this turned into a story that has surprised even me, and it includes incredible strength in small packages and the awe of maternal care and connection. It’s a story worth telling — and one we’ll remember for years to come. Our smallest lambs are now four days old and thriving!

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