Death is never far away in the life of smallholding.
Take a walk anytime over our hill or out onto the ridge itself and you will see where death has caught up with its clients. An explosion of feathers or fur marks the spot where a bird or rabbit endured its final mortal moments. Paths and tracks are littered with bones of sheep, in fact there are so many on one particular trail I named it Sheep Skull Lane. Occasionally you find fresher remains, an old ewe lying under a gorse bush, bits of fleece falling away signaling the start of decomposition. Once I found a blood trail, the glossy scarlet streaked across the spring grass leading to a ewe, who, exhausted from the effort of trying to give birth, had collapsed on the hillside and died only moments before I arrived on the scene. The head of her lamb had stuck fast, with no one there to assist she was doomed and they both died.
Whoever says lambing is straight forward has no real concept of the task. It is a time fraught with difficulties, of immense highs, joyous moments, the miracle of witnessing birth, the fight for life and sometimes, inevitably death. The commercial farmers reckon on 3 out of hundred ewes causing problems. Our first year at the Rock lambing time approached with our three Ryeland ewes we felt confident that we shouldn't have too many worries. As we had those three out of a hundred ours was an absolute nightmare, a real baptism of fire.
Rita began by presenting a lamb with its head stuck; luckily Tracey and I were brought up watching James Herriot on the BBC so we knew what we had to do. I pushed the head back in and scooped up the two front legs and pulled the lamb out. Rita took the intrusion on my right arm in her insides quite well and began mothering the lamb, called Shrek. Minutes later Rita keeled over and further exploration with my hand discovered a second lamb, this time a breach birth, much pushing and shoving later we had April running around the pen. So with our first ewe we had had to deal with the two most difficult birth scenarios at once.
Still, it could only get easier from there, well apparently not.
Roxy gave birth the next day whilst we were at work. Tracey had come home to discover two little lambs in the barn looking very disorientated. Roxy had little idea what to do with them so we had to milk her, feed the lambs and gently encourage her to take over the mother role. Luckily for us and the lambs Ebony and Ivory, Roxy eventually got the hang of it. Rosie held out for a whole month before delivering Lucky, again this was not entirely an easy birth. Tracey returned from work again to find a ewe with the head of a lamb stuck fast. I was miles away so Tracey rolled her sleeves up and did a Mrs. Herriot on Rosie and by the time I got home Lucky was doing very well whilst shell shocked Tracey was enjoying cider with Rosie.
This is why we bring our small flock in off the hill, so much can go wrong, even when healthy lambs pop out they can meet death in a variety of ways. Perhaps the saddest is when the birth bag fails to tear away from the face of the newborn. Unable to breathe the lamb dies. By the time the ewe cleans the lamb it’s too late and the shepherd finds a perfect, clean but very dead lamb. No one tells you this aspect of small scale farming, people have strange ideas about lambs, just seeing the cute little things bouncing around in the sunshine they forget the trauma it took to get them there.
We had gone to bed exhausted following Easter’s labour where she produced two healthy lambs Daffodil and Primrose, so named because of the mass of flowers on the bank that overlooked their birth. We got up just before six to check on the sheep. Easter’s twin girls were still standing when we got to the sheep shed. Relieved I began the routine of feeding and watering the many beasts resident at Rock HQ. The dawn chorus was supplemented by the noise of hungry goats, sheep, dogs and poultry. As I passed the sheep shed again Tracey was watching with some concern the goings on inside. The lambs were weakly staggering around, Easter was facing them, pushing Primrose away and turning onto Daffodil. I put a bucket of sheep nuts down for Easter and as she ate I put a lamb by her teats. She stopped eating and turned away from the lamb. I moved her into the corner so she couldn't back away and repeated the process, she carried on eating and the lamb closed in on breakfast. I left them too it as the poultry needed feeding but returned five minutes later. Primrose was lying on her side, almost lifeless, Daffodil was in the corner with her head down, and Easter was stood in the middle of the pen spinning round madly.
Lambs must eat almost as soon as they are born, within 15 minutes or so. The first feed is vital as the milk, known as colostrum contains antibodies and vitamins without which the lamb will certainly die. Easter, a first time mum, felt overwhelmed with the prospect of motherhood and whilst she instinctively knew she had to feed them she panicked every time they approached and turned away. The lambs were now exhausted from following her around the pen and close to death.
I picked up Primrose, she felt like a cold wet dish cloth as I carried her into the kitchen. Tracey mixed some colostrum and we managed to syringe 70ml into the lamb via a feeding tube. Wrapped up in a towel and placed in front of the rayburn she looked pitiful but we were hopeful that we had got to her in time. They need the colostrum in the first six hours of birth and we were just about in time. As we watched we could see that Primrose had stopped breathing. Unsure how to administer the kiss of life to a lamb I did my best and she spluttered back to life. Her heartbeat was strong so she wasn’t going to leave us just yet.
I fetched Daffodil in and we got 100ml into her. Primrose was by now rallying and we placed them both with the tiddlers Jess and Katy housed in the conservatory.
Realizing how close we were to losing these two Ryeland Lambs we did not really want to leave them but we had paid jobs to go and do. Luckily we were able to get away from work at midday and after calling at the vet for advice we returned to the Rock. The news from the vet was not good, unless we got 150ml immediately into the lambs they were unlikely to survive. He also gave us some mineral mix to help hydrate the poor mites and a supplementary oral boost, molasses based to increase their chances of survival.
The conservatory at Rock HQ now looked like an emergency ward with four sickly lambs totally reliant on us to meet their needs. Primrose and Daffodil were still alive and we managed to get more colostrum into them with a feeding tube. They didn’t like the molasses mix but it did seem to perk them up. Two hours later we repeated the process, forcing more food into them via the pipe, this time Daffodil took 200ml but Primrose only managed another 100.
But they were improving, slowly.
By 3pm Primrose even started walking around the conservatory, managing a half hearted skip in the sunshine. Both passed urine showing that their kidneys were functioning and they had passed solids demonstrating the internal organs were not shutting down. The danger is that once you get a lamb on recovery they die anyway as various parts of their system shuts down. They all settled down on the dog bed in a sunbeam and fell asleep. We were beginning to feel confident that they would survive.
We got on with other jobs but always returning to the lambs to check their progress.
I put dinner in the oven, a rack of ribs from Shrek. We, as you have probably guessed, have a very real relationship with our food at Rock HQ. Shrek was our first lamb at the smallholding, and after 11 months of the best care he was the first to take up residence in Mr. Whirlpool the chest freezer. Tonight he was on the menu.
At 6pm Daffodil took another 200ml, again from the pipe but this time she sucked it slightly, things were looking good, she was at least making an effort. Primrose seemed lethargic; she wouldn’t eat and held her mouth shut against the feed pipe. I mixed the mineral supplement given to us by the vet and she took 200ml and a couple of squirts of the molasses tonic. Things did not look good and sounded even worse. Her breathing took on a labored quality and she rasped and gurgled with every breath.
An hour later she stopped breathing but her heart beat was still strong, Tracey massaged Primrose's chest and blew into her mouth prompting her to continue drawing in air.
I was wondering if I had got the fluids into her correctly, perhaps I had filled her lungs with the glucose mix. I put my finger into her mouth and she held on, not sucking just squeezing my digit with her mouth. It was cold, a sign that she was giving up, her body was not producing any heat. As Tracey cuddled the lamb I got a hot water bottle and we placed her on the dog bed in front of the radiator. The other lambs crowded round and soon she was back up to normal temperature, but lapsing in and out of consciousness. She continued to fight for breath until ten when Tracey decided that she would hold her to keep her warm. The two sat on the sofa, Primrose on her lap wrapped in a soft towel, Tracey and I knew deep down that there was nothing more we could do, Primrose was fighting a losing battle, her lungs were filling up with fluids produced by an infection and she was literally drowning in her own mucus.
Tracey spent the next hour and half stroking and talking to Primrose who would occasionally splutter and throw her head back in an effort to continue living, but at half eleven, almost exactly 24 hours since she popped into the world she left us.
It was hard to take after such an effort to save her, Primrose was the first lamb we had lost at Rock HQ.
We were left with a few what ifs and whys, what if we had stayed to watch her feed would she have lived, who knows, why Primrose not Daffodil, and would Daffodil be next?
We did learn a lot from the experience, we also saved Daffodil, for the time being anyway, from a similar fate. It was hard not to be cross with Easter for not looking after them, but then again she was just as tired, worried and confused as we were. The fight for life goes on with Daffodil so we went to bed just after midnight and set the alarm for the 3 am feeding round.
Hopefully we would be up before death called for Daffodil.
Dinner didn’t get eaten, Rib of Shrek got put in the fridge and we had a cheese sandwich. It takes a lot to put me off my food, only once have I been forced to give up a meal, after watching a post mortem I somehow didn’t fancy the kidneys in tomato sauce I cooked for my dinner.
I'm not sentimantal but after battling so hard for Primrose somehow eating lamb chops didn’t seem entirely appropriate.