Participating in a miracle

Farming was never on my bucket list, not when I was child, not when I was a young wife, and not when a second marriage set me down on a small acreage on Vancouver Island, with no prior knowledge of agricultural pursuits. However, sheep have no use for bucket lists. When a pregnant ewe is having a difficult birth, the only thing on her wish list is survival.

Sheep in labor

Dorset ewe in labor

Naturally, one of the first lambs to test our newly minted farming skills picked a Friday night to make her appearance, and then changed her mind. At the best of times, small farms are a dicey economic proposition. Bringing in a vet on a Friday night is an absolutely certain method of not only wiping out the potential value of the lamb but of her mother and a couple flock mates as well.

I wanted to wait until nature took its course and delivered the newborn safe into the clean hay. My less-squeamish husband could see the ewe was stressed. Since I had the smaller arms, I went to the house to soap them down. I also grabbed the guide we had practically memorized, Raising sheep the modern way.

Though I truly did hurry, I couldn’t help hoping the ewe would push that little newborn out while I was in the house. She didn’t and was clearly at the end of her strength.

Midwifing a sheep

Kneeling behind the ewe, I put my hand where it had never been before

My husband opened the book to the chapter on difficult deliveries. I knelt behind the ewe and carefully inserted my hand where no hand of mine had ever been.

As he described what I should be encountering, I tried to envision what I was touching. Remember those pots of peeled grapes and boiled spaghetti that pass for eyeballs and guts at children’s Halloween parties? You get the picture. Only this was real, and two lives were at stake.

Pulling a lamb

Holding onto the hooves, I gently but firmly tugged

Moving carefully so as not to damage the uterus, I felt for the front hooves and nose that should have been aimed at the exit. Even for someone as unfamiliar with a ewe’s interior as I was, I knew what I was touching was the bum end of the lamb. My first midwifery experience was turning out to be a breech birth.

I made a few failed attempts to gently reposition the little one, but I was too inexperienced. By now the ewe and I were both stressed. I was afraid by the time I rotated the lamb I’d have two dead sheep on my conscience. So I stopped trying.

I took hold of one little hind leg and gently pulled it straight. Holding the hoof with my free hand, I went back in and straightened the second leg. When both hooves were lined up, I held on for dear life and gently, but firmly and steadily, pulled.

Freeing the lamb

Gradually, the little breech lamb came free

The ewe cooperated, bearing down as I tugged. When I finally freed the limp lamb, covered with afterbirth, I was sure the little guy was dead. We cleared her nose and mouth and placed her by her mother’s head. The ewe was exhausted, but the instant she sniffed her newborn she began licking it clean, calling to it softly all the while. After only a few licks, the lamb shook its head.

Limp lamb

I was sure the limp lamb was dead

She was alive! I still remember the feeling, fleeting though it was, that nothing else needed to happen to make my life complete.

The breech lamb survived and thrived. Over the next dozen years, we had many other lambs and many more difficult deliveries. Everyone of them was thrilling but none ever quite matched that first experience of sheep midwifery.

Live lamb

There were many more lambs on the farm but none more precious than this one

I’d come to farming reluctantly, part of a years-long attempt to make a marriage work by following someone else’s dreams. The experience taught me lessons I’d have learned no other way. Some of them were soul-deep painful. Others were hilarious or joyful. I’m grateful to the animals who were my teachers, and sometimes I’m even grateful to the dreamer who gave this reluctant farmer more than a decade of unexpected stories.

The poem below was written a couple months after the incident above. It appeared in American Cowboy and most recently in Holiday Folklore & More.

Stock Talk Christmas Eve

One wintry night the relatives
Were gathered in our barn.
They’d all come from their city homes
For Christmas at the farm.

‘Twas Christmas Eve, and just before
The wassail was passed ’round,
We donned our coats and headed down
To hear the magic sound

Of animals at midnight,
For then the power of speech
Is given to all sheep and cows,
Or so I’d heard it preached.

My husband, he was skeptical,
The relatives amused.
They figured I’d gone round the bend
Since donning country shoes.

But to the barn they gamely trooped.
They’d humor me this time.
We flipped the switch and walked into
A scene that was sublime.

The sheep were calmly bedded down.
They looked, then turned away,
For we’d disturbed their peaceful rest
And hadn’t brought them hay.

I thought of tales of talking beasts.
“Let’s sing to them!” I cried.
Embarrassed silence met my plea.
“Let’s not,” my husband sighed.

No word came from those woolly heads.
I blushed and murmured low,
“They prob’ly talk when we’re not here.
I guess we’d better go.”

Then coming from a darkened stall,
We heard a little cry,
Soon followed by a throaty one
That pulled us to draw nigh

And watch a newborn struggle up
To reach her mother’s teat.
She crumpled, rose, and tried again
On tiny cloven feet.

While ewe and lamb crooned soft and low,
We cleared our throats and sang
Of friendly beasts and silent nights
And bells that angels rang.

Then all the livestock in the barn
Began to bleat and crow
And oink and quack and gobble
In the languages they know.

The relatives fell silent
Till one softly observed,
“That’s the closest thing to talking
This city dude has heard.”

So maybe friendly beasts don’t speak
In English or Chinese,
But if you listen close
You’ll hear them talk on Christmas Eve.

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8 comments for “Participating in a miracle

  1. December 8, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    Great story.

    How common is it for ewes to need help while giving birth?

  2. December 8, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    A minority of ewes need help, as with most mammals, but a breech birth usually gives them difficulty. There are a lot of reasons a lamb can get turned around. When it does, the ewe will try mightily to deliver it. If she can’t, a bit of help generally prevents stillbirth or the death of the ewe. Healthy, pasture-raised animals generally deliver their young without any intervention, and that’s always first choice.

    What a wonderful blog you have in On the Other Hand.

  3. j
    December 9, 2010 at 8:33 pm

    Oh Cathryn,
    Only you could stick your arm all the way to your elbow into the uterus of a sheep, while wearing a lovely bright yellow long sleeve shirt, and literally pull a lamb— without getting your daffodil duds dirty! (I can’t get through a day of teaching in a classroom without tempera paint stains somewhere on my clothes.) Laughing as I really can’t imagine how you managed to keep that shirt so vividly yellow (but then we both know that you’ve always been a little tidier than me!)

  4. December 10, 2010 at 11:43 am

    Interesting. It does make sense that most of them don’t require extra help, though. Any species that did wouldn’t survive very long.

    And thank you!

  5. December 10, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    This is why I get so angry with industrial agriculture. Dairy cows with massive udders, chickens with oversized breasts, turkeys that are unable to mate, calves taken away from their mothers, and on the list goes.

  6. December 10, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    Ummmm…the photos aren’t high resolution or you’d see the mottled front of that yellow sweatshirt. 😉

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