April 21, 2008
In the sheep pens
In the big barn nearest to the guest cottages, stacks of hay reach to the ceiling every fall. But by April, the towering stacks are gone. Instead Brother Tractor sets up ten makeshift pens, a maternity ward, where laboring sheep can give birth or sheep who have just given birth can rest with their babies while he monitors and tags them.
The birthing pens are filled with clean hay, but the sheep themselves, after being out in the muddy pasture, are pretty filthy. And an ewe who has just given birth often has bloody afterbirth hanging down, a long wet trail. The newborn sheep are slimy and yellow when they are born, although it's amazing how quickly they turn white when the mothers begin licking them. Brother Curly Beard grabs a pitchfork and tosses hay in the stalls to cover up pools of fluid. Both ends of the barn are open, so sun and fresh air come into the pens. The baby sheep crouch under their mothers, wagging their tails excitedly as they nurse. If I get too close to a baby, the mother will stare right at me and stamp her foreleg.
The sheep barn is a pleasant place to be on a sunny day. Always something is happening: another baby being born, a lively lamb getting loose, another laboring sheep brought in. I stand back against the wall, making myself invisible, while Brother Tractor and Brother Curly Hair fetch hay and water, bring sheep in and out. Once I've figured out the rhythm of the work, I begin helping out, and we talk over the sheep as we look at them. Sheep midwifery does not seem much different than human midwifery, something I could talk about endlessly.
Some of the lambs bleat piteously as they butt their heads against their mothers, looking for milk. When all the sheep get going, it's pretty loud. Once the lambs are about a day old and have been tagged, Brother Curly Beard and Brother Tractor open the gates and move them out into the pasture, to make room for the next batch of laboring ewes. Out in the pasture, the little lambs, their wool licked clean, prance and play in the sunshine.
Posted by jo(e)