This post is late because the last seven days have been unbelievable. It all started on Wednesday when Rosie decided she was done being pregnant. She swiftly and easily dropped a little girl. I was thrilled, mostly because I was crouched under the barberry bush she’d chosen to protect her while she gave birth. If you don’t know barberry, it’s a plant that doesn’t bother with thorns on its branches. Why, when every leaf is outfitted with a thorn on each of its five points? It’s also the source for berberine, which is good for diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, and, apparently, lambing ewes. Rosie kept nibbling at it while she labored.
And labor she did, scratching at the ground, turning circles, pushing. No second lamb followed her little girl. After four hours of this, I forced her to come down off the wild hillside. She went into the back pasture and kept scratching and laboring, taking time off here and there to graze a little and nurse her little girl.
Worried and unable to help her, I left her to herself. Then at noon on the next day I heard her bellow in pain. I ran down and found her trying to deliver a big boy who was coming nose first. For those who don’t know, nose first is bad. It’s the front hooves, then nose, then forehead, and then the rest is easy. Recruiting help from a (fortunate for me) visitor, I worked to help Rosie stretch enough to bring out a dead lamb. She seemed to bounce back swiftly and by nightfall I was thrilled to see her snuggling with her new baby in one of the alleyways.
The next day Petunia started labor. By now I’d gathered up all the essential things: nitrile gloves, dog leash, Dr. Bronner’s soap, a glass bottle and infant nipples (in case I ended up needing to bottle feed a lamb). Within minutes I could see that Petunia’s baby also had his feet under him instead of being outstretched. Drawing a deep breath, I did something I never even thought about doing before I moved up here. In fact, if you’d told me I’d being doing it, I’d have laughed at you. I put my hand inside Petunia, pushed her baby boy back into the birth canal and worked to bring his hooves out in front of him.
Problem #1: He was huge. Problem #2: Her pelvic opening barely had room for him.
After much twisting and turning, I got his forefeet out, and Petunia did the rest. She set to cleaning him, and all looked good until he tried to get to his feet. I don’t know if I did it while working to grab his feet or if it was a birth defect, but his ankle joints were weak. As he stood, his feet rolled under him until he was standing on his ankles. After much effort, he brought his hoofs under him.
Then Petunia dropped his placenta and got up to deliver #2. Like Rosie, she turned and scratched. For hours, she turned and scratched at the earth. Christina and I checked on her during the night. Nothing. The next morning I did that thing again, and reached inside. Her cervix was closed and there was nothing in the birth canal. And still she labored. Once she reached the twenty-four hour mark, I knew things weren’t going to end well. By Sunday night, even though she was loving on her baby, she could no longer feed her little guy and he was losing weight. It was time. I recruited my neighbor and we ended her suffering, and the little guy came into the house.
He took his bottles very well and immediately put on about a half a pound. That’s when I realized just how bad his rolled feet were. The more weight he gained, the more he walked on his ankles. He wouldn’t be able to walk by the time he reached five pounds. There was no choice. He joined his mother.
I had barely caught my breath (and put my heart back in my chest) when Tiny went into labor. This is her fourth litter, so she was an old hand at this. Nonetheless I was standing by, ready to help. One water bag appeared and broke, then two, then three. Didn’t I say she’d give me at least three?
Boy #1’s nose made its appearance. I cursed roundly, gloved up and reached in. He wasn’t very big, but had one hoof caught behind him and his shoulder had lodged on her pelvis. I shifted him just a little. Tiny glanced over her shoulder as if to say, “Yeah, a little more to the right.” And sure enough, a little more to the right and she sent him flying out.
She had barely started cleaning him when Boy #2’s nose and no feet made their appearance. Along with them came another intact water sack. Oh, God! Four?
As Tiny continued to clean her first one, I once again reached inside. #2 was huge! Like twice the size of the first guy. I pushed him all the way back into the birth canal so I could catch his feet. I knew #3 was right behind him, but was thankful they weren’t tangled around each other. I rotated him, caught his hooves and brought them straight out in front. Tiny gave a little push and….
An albino Dorper sheep appeared. He’s both gorgeous and strange in the same instant. Where Dorpers are black, he’s a weird taupe color with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes.
As Boy #1 went to find a teat, Tiny set to work cleaning #2. Almost as an afterthought, tiny Boy #3 shot out of her, almost falling unnoticed into the dirt behind her. I took over cleaning #2 and let Tiny work on #3.
Minutes later and three placentas made their appearance, bing, bing, bing. But four water bags means four babies. I sat back to wait.
Sure enough, Tiny began to turn and scratch, pushing now and then. I waited an hour. After shooting out three in less than one hour, no baby appeared. Two hours later, still no baby. Now I’m worried, first about Tiny and then about the three little boys she might leave behind if that fourth baby kills her. One more time I reached inside her. She was so relaxed I think she hardly noticed what I was doing.
There was no baby in the birth canal. I reached a little lower and found what I’m sure is a placenta. There’s no pulling on a placenta, not for any reason, so I backed out, gnashing my teeth.
I told myself that her three babies are healthy and happy, that Tiny is drinking and eating and happily bonding with all three babies instead of trying to palm one off on me. She’s calm and relaxed, except for those occasional pushes. I let it go. If there is a fourth in her, it’s dead by now. She’ll either push it out or, if there’s no infection, reabsorb it. If there’s an infection, I’ll lose her and there’s nothing I can do about that.
I didn’t sleep much last night, worrying about her. But this morning she was out grazing with her boys, nose cold, ears warm, and very pleased with herself.
Before I could grab a breath (or drink a bottle of wine) Mari went this morning. I grabbed the bucket of soapy water, gloves and went out to stand ready. Two water bags appeared, then her little girl shot out without effort. Mari was cleaning her daughter and guess what? Little boy’s nose and one hoof made their appearance. Like Tiny, Mari barely noticed what I was doing as I reached inside her. She was concentrating on cleaning her girl. His right front leg was lodged against her pelvic opening. I tried pushing him back, but Mari was having none of that. She wanted him out! Instead, I pushed him to the left and POP! There he was. Both placentas followed in good order.
I breathed a sigh of relief then caught back my breath as I looked at Milly. Nervous, shy Milly with those silly little Rasta curls on her head. I thought she’d go before Mari, because she’s been complaining for the last twenty-four hours. When she does go, I know exactly what to expect. She’ll have one, he’ll be a boy, and he’ll get lodged against her pelvic opening with one or two feet caught behind him. I’ll have to fight her to do what must be done when what must be done could be deadly to her.
But farming is about managing death, not managing life, and that is a strange, uncomfortable, and powerful truth to hold in my heart.