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Monday, April 18, 2011

One Becomes Three

Our old ewe decided to do us a favor and drop her lambs in the middle of a relatively pleasant Sunday afternoon, when we would be easily available to help her out.  She's taken advantage of our assistance during the two previous lambings, even when the lambs are lined up nicely without tangled legs or twisted heads, and ready to go with a good push.  Buttercup doesn't seem to want to push anymore.  Maybe she's decided she's too old for heroics when there is help available.  She's a wise old sheep.

Dan begins the assist, drawing on the front legs of the lamb.

The lamb is almost out.  They are incredibly slippery.


First wide-eyed look at a new world.

Buttercup does her stuff.

With an assist, the new lamb is soon delivered onto the straw, and the old ewe immediately begins cleaning off the membranes and fluid, rasping steadily with her rough tongue and chuckling away.  Sheep have a special gutteral bleat they use just for their newborn babies.  The lamb soon answers, a high-pitched protest.  What must it be like, to go from tight hot darkess, into cold bright light and too much space in a matter of seconds?  The lamb works to rise, stumbling and flopping forward and sideways.  She soon has mastered tucking her shockingly long legs tight under her body, and within a few minutes of that, she can rise and stand.  At this point, we deliver the second lamb, and while Buttercup begins another round of cleaning and chuckling, the first lamb finds her udder, and after several long minutes of apparent confusion, she takes her first meal of rich milk.  The second lamb soon follows.

Despite thousands of years of domestication and intense selective breeding, they all know what to do.  It is easy to understand the need for a wild lamb to quickly climb to its feet and feed, and be ready to either run or hide within minutes of its birth.  It is harder to imagine the slow steps along that evolutionary journey, the process of encoding these complex behaviors into genes piece by piece.

This morning we only had one sheep, our old ewe with her low-hanging udder and enormous swollen body, standing a bit dejectedly by the fence.  The ewe is now fired up with a new purpose, both protective and nuturing, carrying on the instructions that have carried life through the ages.

So one became three.

Postscript. This morning I rode my bicycle by the pasture at dawn, and saw Buttercup resting in the shed with her two lambs curled up in tight black commas beside her.  It was cold last night, with a light frost.  Imagine your first day, watching an overcast afternoon fade into nightfall and cold moonlight.  You keep warm by pressing one side of yourself into your dam, while the little meal of milk that is all your stomach can hold has to fire up your body heat, something you've never had to do for yourself before.  What is that like for a lamb, or any other newborn animal that is born aware of its surroundings?  The sun was just edging up over the ridge when I saw them this morning, washing the hilltops with the promise of a day without rain.  The lambs looked out from their shelter at their lives opening out before them.

1 comment:

  1. Nice essay and great photos of farmer dan with the sheep!