When winter is as wet and soggy as this, it makes for a hard day for one poor ewe.
When lambing goes bad
Idon’t think town people have any idea of the joys of farming in July. They see the photos on the calendars of fluffy little lambs gambolling amongst the daffodils, blue skies, cute calves slobbering over somebody’s fingers. It is all very photogenic. And clean.
But just as the calendars about sailing boats don’t show the wet arses and seasickness, the country calendars don’t seem to get the essence of real farming at all. July is about rain.
In the north west that means it is also about mud, the stinking greasy sort that gets into your skin and requires three hours in a hot bath with essential oils to remove. It is about cold. Ok, not the bonechilling snow and ice of the poor guys in the deep south. But those guys can walk over the frozen solid ground whereas up north we have to wade through it. That usually means leaving the gumboots behind by accident in a bog.
As for the animals, life is just as miserable. Food is often short, and it doesn’t contain the energy and sweetness of grass in the warmer months. Their woolly coats might look snug, but fill them up with rainwater and they make moving anywhere an exercise in strength and precision. It is no wonder that unshorn sheep often end up cast with the weight of their sodden fleeces, and the shorn ones end up with hypothermia. ‘To shear or not to shear’ is a catch-22 for farmers.
Sometimes the sun breaks through and the lambs lucky enough to be born on the good days rocket away, playful little buggers and a joy to behold.
But this story isn’t about those ones. This story is about a wet day, the reality of July, to hopefully give wanna-be farmers a glimpse of some of the harsher realities of life.
If size is what matters, Janice and Ian weren’t real farmers, but they were quite good at it. They had about 6ha of tidy paddocks and nice grass. They ran enough sheep and weaner cattle to keep it looking like a bowling green most of the year, and the freezers of half the locals full of prime lamb. The sheep got drenched, docked and shorn at the right time. The paddocks got fertiliser and lime, and any weed that dared appear was soon dealt to. “A never-ending job, thanks to the toerags that farm around here, with all their carrot weed and thistles,” Ian complained about his neighbours. “Weed seeds for Africa thanks to that lot. ”
His sheep didn’t have names. But he certainly recognised them all, and which ones threw twins or triplets, which of the young two tooth replacements to keep an eye on.
And it is just as well he was so diligent, as the inevitable happened. One of the young sheep he was watching began to lamb early in the morning of a wet miserable July day. Still nothing was happening by the afternoon.
“She is a beautiful young sheep,” he
Normally vets don’t get called out to lambings.
said when he rang the Vet. “But I reckon she should have got it out by now.”
Ian had driven the animal into his little holding yards. The nearby barn provided some shelter from the wind and he’d rigged up a few bits of corrugated iron over the race to deflect the downpour when the showers came scudding through. But it was inches of water underfoot.
Normally vets don’t get called out to lambings. If the farmer can’t sort the problem, then the sheep is usually destined for dog tucker or a deep hole. The economics of getting a vet and vehicle onto a farm just do not equate to the value of said ewe and lamb. But people like Ian are a different breed and economics are not their only consideration.
“You realise if we assist her, then even if she has a good lamb, she’s not the sort of animal you want to keep in the flock,” the Vet said. “Not if you want to select for easy care anyway.”
Ian knew all that, but he just didn’t like seeing a good sheep struggle. “It’s not her fault.” “Well, only in that she has been a greedy girl and a bit lazy,” the Vet said.
“Yeah I know, keep them fit, not fat. I thought we were doing ok, but she just kept getting bigger and bigger. I assume she has a load of twins or triplets on board.”
After getting down on his knees in the mud and getting a hand inside the ewe, the Vet reported that the cervix was very tight and it was only a single lamb inside. That was why it was so big, and why she couldn’t push it out unaided.
Even Ian couldn’t run to the cost of a caesarean, especially as the lamb was probably dead by now anyway.
“Just do what you can,” he told the Vet.
What followed was not pretty. Babies go in a lot easier than they come out. That poor little sheep was stretched and wiggled, pushed and graunched, she panted, she groaned, she bleated and bled. Eventually the lamb was out. It was nauseating to watch.
There was no fairy tale breath of life administered to the soggy little blighter. He was a slimy mess and very dead. His mother did not look back longingly after the birth but staggered to her very wobbly hooves. The Vet gave her a quick jab of antibiotic and ant-inflammatory and she was out of there as fast as she could waddle. She was not in the slightest bit interested in motherhood.
The Vet himself had bruised knuckles and sore, soggy knees. Ian was holding himself together by chain smoking. His wife had long since fled the scene.
At the end of the day, the score was one-all: one lamb dead and one ewe alive. But she would be no good for future breeding and would need care and ongoing antibiotics to survive the aftermath of such a brutal lambing.
“I guess the good news is she didn’t go down and drown in a hole somewhere,” Ian muttered.