A twitter correspondent has asked me for an update on how our lambing has gone. The implication of finality in this question is deeply to be envied and is regrettably misplaced. We have been inhabiting the labour ward for an unconscionably long spell. Last Wednesday, the chief obstetrician left his post for 24 hours to deliver a plenary lecture on contemporary Northern Irish photography in Belfast at a cool, urban gathering in the Film Department of Queens University Belfast. While he talked about the aesthetics of shipyards and concrete . . .
I was left in charge armed with his diagram of the shed – which with its finely drawn lines demarcating individually numbered pens with notes attached for each patient, was really just a cunning plan to convince me that the care of 30 ewes would be easy-peasy – and that familiar, yet still alarming piece of equipment, the stomach tube and syringe.
And on my first round of the ward everything did seem do-able, straightforward, pitching the silage into the troughs between the larger pens, and cleaning up the afterbirth in the larger pens, and feeding nuts to the larger pens – that was all fine. But then I had to do the water on the 8 individual pens and there learn again the age-old truth that mothering is not a given in man or beast. After I found the third ewe dry or nearly dry or reluctant to let her lambs feed, stamping them away, I began to wonder whether some Cow and Gate salesman had been round at birth offering free formula while I’d been inside with the children. All, of course, lambing for the first time and with twins.
The old trick is to bring the dog into the shed and tie him up next to the problem ewe – the theory being that the mother will keep her eyes on the dog and let the lamb suckle, thus increasing her supply. Bowie, appropriately enough, howls when he’s tied up. So, recalling my own half-hour with the lactation consultant in Holles Street, I decided that instead I’d sit the ewes one at a time on their backsides – this quite a tricky operation in and of itself – and latch each lamb on to a spin as they call the teats around here, some on their own mother, or if dry, on another. At least they’d get a decent feed of colostrum to see them through the night.
And that’s how I passed a good three hours in the shed on Wednesday night. Got to bed at 3 am and dreamed fitfully of sheep – not as a flock – but as an identity parade of individuals.
Then on Thursday morning, at 7.30 am, a neighbour rang to say our sheep and lambs were out straying on Mutton Lane. So, before the boys woke up, I was out searching for shit on the road like Pocahontas trying to trace which way the rustlers had gone while heroic friend and neighbours (thank you Liat, Luky and Chris) drove round in loops to see if they could find them. But there was neither trace nor sign, so after an hour hunting, I gave up and headed back to the shed, hoping we’d bred homing sheep . . .
There to discover a ewe struggling to deliver a dead lamb: head out, one foot forward, the other wedged in behind the pelvic bone. Luky, thank heavens, had joined me by this stage. ‘What would Colin do in this situation?’ was her very useful question, before she suggested that in Norway where she’d done a year’s agricultural training, they would saw the head off the dead lamb before pushing back in the torso and turning it. I found I wasn’t quite ready for this Ted Hughes moment. Neither did we have a sharp enough knife. So I pushed, and then she pushed, and she got the head back a bit, and that must have loosened something, because the ewe did the rest and out the big lamb came.
And so, that gave us one ewe to try and foster some lambs onto and that worked for a while, after skinning the dead lamb (Luky you’re a star), and fitting its legs through little holes and tying the little waistcoat round with blue baler twine. And while we were doing that, another set of twins had to be delivered from a ewe scanned for one but with a second tell-tale bag of waters appearing after the first. So I pulled her second twin out, which was a first delivery for me, all alive, yippee!
And then it was time to feed the ewes in the front field which entails loading a 25kg sack of 18% Prime Ewe Nuts into a wheelbarrow and trotting down the drive with it to a deafening chorus of approval. Assisted by the man who came to install our pump, (yes, we’re switching from our 1920s gravity fed stream supply to a well – there’s modernity for you), the sheep were fed . . .
And just as I was closing the field gate behind me, I spotted a car at the front gate with a man in a suit watching me. He gestured for me to come down and talk to him. It turned out to be a man whom I’d met once before when he’d visited the house in a professional capacity. “Please can you sell me some lambs?” he asked. ‘What for?’ I asked, struggling for a minute to imagine that my dream had come true – our pet lambs on the bottle in some private zoo. ‘Eating,’ he said. ‘They won’t be ready to eat until October’ I told him.
No, he wanted them small, 14 kilos or so, and he would like to return with his friend. And then, I twigged rather late, that this was a Halal request. And although I don’t think that slitting a lamb’s throat can be all that much more cruel than shooting a bolt through a lamb’s brain in an abattoir, having spent much of the night delivering the creatures and nursing back to health the skinny shivering ones, and much of the morning hunting sheep on the roads, and delivering steaming slimy lambs, it was all I could do to protest: ‘But they are only just being born! And they wouldn’t even be weaned . . and . . and. . . and. . .!’ Yes, rules and regulations about slaughtering too, but at that particular moment, they were the least of it.
So, those are my lambing notes. We have 14 ewes left to deliver on the labour ward. Colin is home. And heroically returns to the shed every couple of hours in between correcting his proofs on his new book while laboring with an ear infection. And from here on out, all our prayers are for warm weather, fertilizer, and a sudden greening of the fields. Then our work will be done for a while.