From my past experiences, I assumed that sheep were low maintenance and relatively easy to keep happy. When I was younger , we had a pretty impressive amount of sheep, all of which were normal and easy-going. Lambing time with that particular group was low stress: every single one of the ewes had twins, but none of them had birthing issues and they would take excellent care of their lambs once they were born. When my parents decided to find more sheep once again, I was naïve, thinking that we would have a repeat of our last experience.
That was not the case.
We purchased the sheep from a very nice lady in the Cariboo. They are French Rambouillet sheep who have extremely thick wool. We now plan on using this wool as insulation for the cabins we are building. Initially we got seven ewes which we named Monday through Sunday. They were all pregnant when we purchased them so we had no idea what kind of ram they had been bred with. Their pregnancies were tumultuous at best; the brooding ewes nailed their fellow ewes up against the wall and didn’t allow them to rest when they were clearly uncomfortable. They also didn’t seem to want anything to do with us unless we had grain for them. When lambing began, we knew there was something that wasn’t quite right. The lambs were huge and would get stuck during birth. My mom, being the champion that she is, pulled each and every one of them out, which is highly abnormal. The moments just after birth are extremely important for lambs. It is imperative that they drink from their mother directly after birth in order to ingest crucial nutrients and immunity factors. For most lambs, this is an instinct they are born with and do not need to be shown. But, for some reason, these lambs believed that other limbs were much more interesting than a teat. We were on constant lamb watch to make sure they received the right amount of milk and continued to drink consistently. Exhausting.
As they grew and they moved past the period of time where sickness or death were true possibilities, it became clear that these lambs had bigger issues than a lack of instinct; two of them had major physical disabilities.Their ligaments were not strong enough to maintain the integrity of their legs. Instead of standing on their hooves, they were walking on the equivalent of our wrists. To them, it seemed normal, but they were much slower than their fellow lambs and they tripped themselves up all the time. After doing some research we concluded that all the aforementioned issues could be the result of inbreeding that we, unfortunately, had no control over.
Now, the problem with naming your animals is that they become your friends. You develop a connection with your animals, a connection you can’t disregard. In the farming world, if you have an animal that has a problem like that, you kill it. It is no good for breeding and it takes time that full-time farmers don’t have.
Well, we are not those kind of farmers.
My mom and dad fashioned splints for the two lambs out of an old brace my Nana used when she broke her arm, and duct tape. It was amazing seeing the lambs walk properly for the first time and the joy they felt as they discovered what it is like to be able to run and jump. Within months, they had both made a full recovery and now walk with only the slightest bit of swagger.
One of these lambs ended up having an even harder card dealt to her shortly after her rehabilitation began. Her mother ate something poisonous in our field and my mom found her dead when she was putting them in one night. This little lamb was now weak and alone and still in need of her mother’s milk. As I previously described, the other ewes showed animosity to each other and lambs that weren’t their own. Not one of them offered to take in the orphan. They kicked her and alienated her without a second thought. There is absolutely nothing worse than seeing ten sheep in one corner of a pen and one little lamb on the other end crying its lungs out. Once again, it was all hands on deck to keep a little one alive.
Thankfully our goats had just had a round of kids and one of our Nubian crosses had way too much milk. So my mom and I would milk the goat and feed it to the little orphan lamb, who we had now given the name Angelina. She knew that the bottle was not her mother and she refused to drink more than a quarter of what she should be drinking. My brother and I decided to test a theory: Perhaps if she was drinking from another sheep she would be more willing to drink, even if she knew it wasn’t her mother. My mom thought this was ridiculous because catching and getting a sheep to stay still is near impossible. However, there is this magical thing called grain…
We enticed a different ewe each morning and night with a bowl of grain. While her head was down,we put a halter on her. Since Ian is pretty good with women, I gave him that job; he found that calling them sensual pet names and singing bad renditions of pop tunes seemed to help the process( no exaggeration, it actually seemed to help). Once she was focused on the grain, I got Angelina and shoved her face by the ewe’s teat. The first time we tried this method, it was amazing how fast she drank and how fast her tail wriggled ( you know a lamb is drinking when their tail wriggles furiously). Sometimes she would stop, realize that it was all a ruse and run away, only to be grabbed once more, with one hand on her face and a gloved hand tickling her bum (ewes rub their lamb’s butt with their faces to stimulate drinking and since I was not willing to do that, a gloved hand would have to do). This would last until the ewe figured out A) there was not food left or B) a stranger was taking her milk, at which point she would start reeling about and plowing Ian into walls. Since it was more successful than the bottle, we continued this process for weeks. Angelina grew stronger and more independent as the time passed and, after her splints came off, she was able to play with the other lambs without an issue.
The picture below was taken on a weekend when I had come home from university. I was sitting in the field with my camera, relaxing and playing with the new born kids, who are always more interested in playing with me than lambs are. Angelina was eating alongside the other sheep and looked up at me. Without breaking her gaze, she looked at me for at least a minute, not moving in the slightest. She didn’t even flinch when I reached down, picked up my camera, and took this picture. I have no doubt that she remembers all the times I man-handled her and forced her to do things she may not have wanted to do. Does she know how hard we worked to keep her alive? I don’t know. But by demonstrating this sense of awareness that I have never seen in a sheep, I am sure that she feels as happy as I do that we took the time.