I sat up abruptly. In the dark, I reached around for my phone to check the time – 4:30 AM. Go back to sleep, I thought. But when I laid down and closed my eyes, I had a different thought. Go check on the sheep. Why not? It’s more or less lambing season here, and you never know when the babies will be born. Sheep mamas, I’m told, are really good at giving birth. They almost never need assistance. Not a bad idea to be standing by, though. I witnessed my first sheep birth earlier in the week when I happened to walk into the barn while an ewe was in labor. The nose and front feet of her lamb were beginning to come out. Ten minutes and a few pushes later, the lamb was on the ground, bleating for mama. Today, I wondered whether or not we’d see more lambs before the end of the week. Technically, we should not have been seeing any lambs until April, but that’s a long story… Tiptoe-ing through the house, I found my coat and flashlight, then quietly slipped outside.
Winter is the sleepy time of year, but on a farm, it’s also a planning time – planning that gets increasingly frenzied and exciting as the winter goes on. With much of January spent drooling over pictures of colorful, ripe vegetables in seed catalogues, and much of this past month spent splitting wood and shoveling, I’ve literally been dreaming of green pastures. The fields are still buried in snow, but I know the soil is alive under it all…
Out of the house and into the raw night air, I zipped my coat all the way up to my chin and shuffled toward the barn. A sharp wind whipped around me, rattling the sliding barn door as I approached. Inside, a few ewes looked up to see who had arrived, then went back to sleep. All seemed well. Climbing into their pen, I walked to the other side and out a doorway to the paddock the sheep have 24-hour access to. On the far side of the paddock, there’s a covered resting area by a hay feeder, and that’s where I spotted a mother ewe standing over twin newborn lambs. If I was at all sleepy when I walked outside, I was fully awake now. The lambs must have dropped minutes before I got there – they were still slimy! One was struggling to hold up his head as his mother licked his face, but the other just lay motionless. Oh no. I knelt down and gently poked it’s nose. It let out a feeble cry, and I sighed with relief.
Stepping back, I watched the ewe as she carefully cleaned her babies all over. What a good mama! She was doing exactly as she was supposed to, but one lamb continued to lie unresponsive. I didn’t want to interrupt these first, critical bonding moments between the ewe and her babies, but something wasn’t right with that lamb, and now I could see it was shivering, too. I hesitated a moment, then scooped those slimy little bundles into my arms and headed for the barn, the mama sheep following anxiously at my heels. Inside, other ewes had become curious and wanted to know what the fuss was about, but I quickly walked by and closed the lambs with their mother into a “lambing jug” (a mini stall in the sheep pen set up specifically to house ewes with newborn lambs separately from the rest of the flock).
Now again, I stepped back and watched. The mother continued to tend diligently to her babies. The stronger one began trying to stand, and with grunts of encouragement from his mother, he quickly found a teat and started to nurse. But the other lamb had yet to even raise its head. If a lamb does not begin nursing within an hour of birth, its chances of survival are greatly reduced. I lifted the weaker lamb into a standing position and pushed her nose right up to her mother’s udder. At first she didn’t respond, but after a few more attempts, she finally got it and began to nurse. She was going to be just fine.
There was no point in going back to bed. It was already beginning to get light out – regular morning chores would start in less than an hour. I can’t say I minded the extra early morning, though. Watching those two wobbly lambs in their first moments was a treat and reminded me that winter is a season of life, too – in its own way. Recently, a distinct hole had been left in the flock after the loss of a beloved barnyard character in January. Mookie died – “for real this time” – as it was phrased in the email announcing his passing. Mookie was an ancient wether (castrated ram) of the sheep flock, and I think he’d been walking the line of the living for quite some time. In his extremely old age, he looked more like a bad taxidermy job of a stray dog than a wooly sheep. But what he lacked in vitality, he made up for in personality. Mookie lives on in the spirit of the flock – especially its charming new lambs.
Winter can drag on monotonously at times, but it is somewhat misleading to call it a dormant season. Dormancy implies inactivity, and there’s truly no such thing on the farm – or anywhere. Life continues to evolve and changes happen in the winter just like in any other season. Though we may have spent a good deal of this particular winter shoveling through mountains of snow, thoughts of new spring growth and summer harvests were never far from our minds. In the words of a Farm School teacher, “When winter sleeps the garden, the summer is its dreaming.”