My 11-year-old, Abby, and I were bringing the sheep from the pasture to the corral the other night when she spotted two tiny feet poking out the back of a ewe.
“Look! She’s not an octopus, she’s a Hexapus!” Abby declared.
When I looked hard, I could see a tongue, too, so the lamb was coming out right, just like a diver.
But the fluid around it was deep yellow, the giveaway clue of stress. Something was wrong.
We coaxed her away from her chosen birthing spot to the corral a half mile away. I snagged her with a shepherd’s hook and tugged at the lamb’s feet.
Oooohhhh! moaned the ewe.
The lamb’s elbows pulled free and then along came the rest of her. The confused, sore ewe tried to escape, but we crowded her into a maternity jug so she could focus her attention on her baby.
That one worked.
Nine orphan lambs bleated from the other side of the panel, physical evidence of poor mothering ability.
Those nine bums are my daily challenge to be a better mother than Nature provided for them.
That’s a huge risk on Nature’s part.
A lamb has a strong instinct to nurse, but the nipple of a bottle does not match a ewe’s teat no matter how hard a manufacturer tries.
The clock ticks toward the finish line. A newborn lamb has limited reserves so the possibility of starvation before it learns to suck on an artificial nipple is the race of reality. Truthfully, a newborn who has never nursed on its mother will learn to suck on a nipple quicker than a lamb who has nursed for a day or two. Still, a newborn lamb needs a quick education.
Abby knows the drill. She sits in the straw of the bum pen, snuggles the lamb close to her body, folds all four legs under the lamb and cradles its jaw in one hand while holding the bottle in the other. She knows to watch for bubbles rising from the bottle, the sign that she is holding the bottle at the right angle for milk to flow and that the lamb is actually swallowing the milk
Abby watches as the lamb wraps its tongue around the nipple. Sometimes, its tongue sticks out to the side and she has to push it back in. Sometimes, it is crooked so the vacuum suction is lost. Start over.
Orphan lambs on the bottle take a lot of time, precious time during lambing season. They need to be fed at least three times a day, four or five is better. That means warming milk at the house, hauling bottles to the barn, feeding each one individually and then hauling the bottles back to the house to wash.
A bucket is far more efficient and the lambs can take sips whenever they want. Lambs that know how to drink from a bucket grow far more quickly than bottle lambs.
But the nipple on a bucket is different. It has a different shape, it’s firmer and not nearly as conducive to that vacuum suction from a lamb’s tongue.
More training is required.
This training is trickier. A lamb might wrap its tongue around the nipple, but not really suck. A person can’t watch for the confirmation bubbles to be sure. Each lamb needs to be comfortable before it will suck on the nipple, but a person can’t snuggle a lamb up to the bucket. Lambs don’t like to have their heads pushed into a nipple so my body becomes a contortion machine, searching for a position to hold the lamb at the nipple without imitating a pillory.
Eventually, the light bulb flashes and the lamb’s tail begins to wag. When she sees me coming, she runs to the bucket, a Pavlov’s lamb.
It’s bittersweet. No more intimate snuggle time, but no more jump-out-of-bed-and-rush-to-the-barn-before-the-lamb-starves chores. Abby and I miss the nuzzles to our chins, but we both know we made the cut of motherhood. At least ovine motherhood. Now to improve on the homo sapien variety.