A Sheep in Sheep’s Clothing

I guess I’m no longer allowed to detest Mother’s Day as another guilt inducing, wallet widening holiday foisted upon us by Hallmark.  That’s been my convenient excuse each May to rationalize the paltry present I’ve offer my mom: the ‘gift’ of my voice on the other end of the phone.  But it turns out the holiday has a legitimate non-commercial origin, first celebrated in 1908 by West Virginian Anna Jarvis in remembrance of her recently deceased mother and in honor of peace.

Combine that with the presence of a soon-to-be mother living in my house, the piles of happy babies bouncing all over the farm and the fact that the earth is finally heavy with lush new life and, well, my heart is starting to warm up to the celebration a bit.

Ewe #35, one of the many new mothers at Maggie’s Farm, is closer to my heart than the rest of the sheep. She’s the patient lady who endured my first awkward attempts at shearing in March despite being pregnant and uncomfortable the whole time. So even though I’ve attempted to keep a ‘farmerly’ distance from animals that may come and go, she’s a special one to me.

mothersday-1So I took it hard when her little black lamb, #78, recently stared to fail. We found her at the end of a warm day, sides heaving as she panted and attempted to nurse.  Considering how effectively sheep can mask illness or injury to prevent being singled out by predators, we figured her to be pretty far gone to appear so sickly. But she stood her shaky ground day after day, limply following her mother around and doing everything in her little lamb power to keep on breathing.

mothersday-18Sadly, though, we found her last Wednesday morning still warm but lifeless.  On a small farm such as ours, the loss of a lamb has minor financial implications, but the bigger concern is for her mother, who is one of our best ewes. Despite the fact that her lamb is dead, she’s still lactating, so the risk of mastitis – a condition in which her utter becomes infected – is quite high. And mastitis could finish her off in a fraction of the time it took her lamb to die.

We can’t simply doing nothing and hope she’d dry off on her own. But the other two options we have are almost as undesirable.

Option 1: the switcheroo – replace her dead lamb with another one and hope she’d allow it to nurse. Because sheep identify each other by scent, this is done by literally cloaking the replacement lamb (borrowed from another ewe’s recent set of twins) with the skin and fleece of the dead lamb. Gross.

Option 2: starve and milk her by hand – quarantine the depressed mother in a 4×4 pen, give her as little food and water as possible to limit her body’s milk production and milk her by hand three times each day – a schedule that we’d taper to two, then one, and eventually dry her off.

When we considered the creep factor and likelihood of failure of the first option, we decided to go with the second.

mothersday-2So these days, we move around the farm knowing we’re trying to do the right thing for #35, but still heartsick at her deep and tireless baaahs emanating from the inside of a lonely barn. And three times each day, we climb into the jug with her and struggle to express her milk as she stares out the open barn door, hearing the bleating of lambs just on the other side.

Well, that’s a massive downer, but I also have some happy news to report: one of our beef cows got a head start on her pregnant sisters and became a mama on Friday evening.  As compared with sheep, cow births are usually less complicated and most of the time, they give birth without our knowledge or assistance. Josh, our livestock manager, in fact, has never even been on hand for one of the births from start to finish.

As I was getting ready to leave for Boston for the weekend, a neighbor called the farm to alert us that one of our cows was in labor. So Amber and I stood for two hours in the lush spring pasture and watched the flawless delivery of a slippery bull calf.

mothersday-3Mom was perfect.  Baby was perfect. Thankfully, may camera battery held out long enough so I could capture mom licking her baby dry with her impossibly long, rough and effective tongue.

And on the farm, death continues to roll into life, leaving those of us in the middle to stand back and wonder.  Thank you, Moms (especially ours: Kathy Jacobs, Kate Alley, Cindi Rudick and Janice Ribet) for bringing us into this place and showing us around.

Maybe next year, I will do better and send a proper card . . .

The rest of the photos from the week can be found HERE.


  • May 13, 2013 at 12:42 pm // Reply

    Erik, shocking that you could be “pregnant and uncomfortable”??? :)

  • May 13, 2013 at 3:40 pm // Reply

    What glorious pictures!

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