Thursday, May 23, 2013


“Walk, shepherdess walk, and I’ll walk too,
To find the ram with the ebony horn and the gold footed ewe,
The lamb with fleece of silver, like summer sea foam,
The wether with the crystal bell that leads them all home.”
(Eleanor Farjeon)

Yesterday, we lost an old friend. Dave buried Christmas in the compost pile in front of the barn. We will miss her.

Christmas was our bellwether. A bellwether is, traditionally, a wether, a castrated ram, who wears a bell and leads a flock of sheep. The shepherd knows where the flock is and if they are in trouble by listening for the bell. If the bell is ringing hard, the sheep are running and it’s very likely that something is chasing them. When he calls them home, he can hear their progress from the ringing of the bell.

Christmas was not a wether and she didn’t wear a bell, but she served as the bellwether for our flock. She was unafraid of people and when we walked into the pasture, she came to us. When we wanted to lead the sheep into a new pasture, Christmas was the first through the gate and the more cautious sheep followed her.

We will miss Christmas most for her friendliness. Christmas could be relied upon to welcome visitors bearing a handful of cheerios or corn. She’d nuzzle hands and baa encouragingly. The visitors were always enchanted. Sometimes the curious lambs would follow Christmas and they too would learn to appreciate visitors and the gifts they bear.

Christmas is gone, but Amy, a bottle lamb last year, joined Christmas when she greeted us at the gate, and will hopefully become our new bellwether. I’ll have to begin carrying cheerios in my pockets again.

Sunday, May 19, 2013


photo by Kate Andrews

Sheep don’t show age like humans. Christmas, our oldest ewe, doesn’t have wrinkles. Sheep’s  faces age by softening the edges. A young sheep has firm features, like a ceramic figure, an old sheep has rounded features, more like a stuffed animal. Even thin old sheep have soft faces. Most people age sheep by counting their teeth and judging the wear on those teeth. We’ve never learned the technique, mostly because we haven’t needed to. I don’t sell our cull sheep, the ones I no longer want in the flock. If they are bad mothers we turn them into “bad mother jerky”; if they have been good mothers, we keep them, but don’t breed them, their fleeces are shorn and sold each year and they continue to greet us when we enter the barnyard.

We think that Christmas had a stroke last summer. She walks on her front ankles instead of her front feet, but she doesn’t complain. She moves around enough to feed herself. I was afraid this winter would be really hard on her, but I think it has been easier than last summer. She suffered from the heat in the summer and our pastures are big enough that she had to move a lot for food and water. This winter, she lounged in the barn or in the sun on a hillside. When Dave fed corn to the ewes in the feed area, he spilled a little at Christmas’ feet. 

Lately, every day, when I go out to the barnyard I am surprised to find her still alive, resting against a wall or the hay feeder. When she lies on her side, she can’t get up very well and I think she has trouble breathing, so she is almost always resting against something.

A week ago, I saw a ewe chase Christmas across the field and butt her, knocking her over. Christmas fell onto her side, with her head facing down hill. She struggled, waving her feet, but couldn’t get up. With her head down like that, her abdominal contents would be pressing against her diaphragm, making it even harder for her to breathe.I rolled her onto her belly and brushed the hay off her fleece. She looked up at me, completely unafraid. I stroked her face, watched her brown eyes, noted her calm breathing. She licked my hand. Some day I’m not going to be there when she gets knocked down. Someday, she won’t be strong enough to crawl to the waterer.  

Some day Christmas will die and I can’t protect her from that. The only way that I can save her from suffering sometime in the future is to kill her now. It could be justified. She is old, at least fifteen. We don’t sell her fleece anymore because it is always full of veggies. We don’t breed her anymore because she couldn’t feed her lambs. It makes sense to kill an aging ewe, but I can’t. And I can’t ask Dave to. I could take her to the vet, and pay him to do it for me, but I'm not quite ready. 

In the last few days, Christmas has been stuck at the bottom of a hill in our home pasture, against the fence. Sometimes lying on one side, sometimes on the other. She still responds to me when I take her corn and water, still eats the corn and drinks some water when I get her up, but she doesn't get up and walk on her own anymore. Tonight we pulled her up to the barn in a big sled. She should be more comfortable there.

Aging is not for sissies, and neither is caring for aging animals.

Monday, May 13, 2013


I sat in the straw. The lamb in my lap was only 18 hours old. Tight black curls covered her body. Her black triangular nose wrinkled as she sucked on the bottle nipple I held in her mouth. The lamb was warm and dry and nursing. She was doing well. Her sister, who had just finished off her half of the bottle was curled up beside her mother’s leg, sleepy, warm and full. Serenity.
Except I shouldn’t have been feeding these two lambs, their mother should. With a sigh, I propped the bottle in a corner of the pen, set down the lamb and knelt to deal with the ewe. She was big, with long legs and a heavy body, even after lambing. I set my left knee in front of her chest and leaned into her armpit with my right shoulder. Theoretically, I had her pinned against the wall in this position. I picked up the lamb and pushed her under her mother, facing backwards. Then I gently pushed the lamb’s head up toward her mother’s udder. When the lamb’s mouth touched her nipple, the ewe lifted her hind leg and brushed the lamb away.
I leaned harder, pushed the lamb closer to the udder and tried again. This time, the ewe moved forward, right over both lambs, nearly stepping on each of them. Close call! Ewes have killed lambs by stepping on them. Heart pounding, I put the second lamb into another pen and repositioned myself, left knee in front of the ewe’s chest, forehead in the depression right in front of her thigh. That should keep her from moving forward.
I put the lamb between her mother’s legs right under her belly. In this position I had two hands free, one to push the lamb under the udder and the second to stuff the mother’s nipple into her mouth. The lamb in the second pen was crying and her mother was baaing. The lamb opened her mouth to baa back to her mother, but not to nurse. The ewe moved. I gritted my teeth, pressed harder with my head, and moved my left knee from the ewe’s chest to the lamb’s butt. Now I could use my left hand to pry open the lamb’s mouth.
With the lamb’s mouth open and head in position, the ewe shifted her weight and the nipple slid out of my hand. I grabbed it again and inserted it. The lamb refused to nurse. I tickled its nose. It sucked. The ewe moved. The lamb was restless, trying to stand. With my left hand, I pushed down on her shoulders, raised her head and jammed the nipple in. The lamb sucked once and the ewe broke my hold, circled the pen, with me following, until we ended up back where we had begun. I threw my knee in front of her chest, leaned into her belly with my head, dragged the lamb into position and stuck the nipple into her mouth again. Just as she started to nurse, her mother lifted a foot and brushed the nipple out.
Goaded beyond endurance, I lifted my head and bit the ewe right in the soft skin in front of her hind leg. Blech! The only effect was that I had a mouthful of dirty wool. I sat back, wiped my mouth on my sleeve and picked up the bottle again. Perhaps I could regain my serenity by bottle feeding to the accompaniment of two lambs and one ewe baaing in my ears.