We lost our girl Irene on Monday.
She died late in the morning after complications with lambing.
She was the only ewe yet to lamb. We had realized that she wasn’t on track to lamb with the others when she frisked about here and there while her ewe sisters waddled with their cumbersome baggage. Weeks passed. Would she lamb in time for our open house? Easter? (that most cliche of days to bear a lamb, I thought) No. Finally, two weeks ago, I was elbow deep in a complicated, multi-course supper when Andrew came bursting in. “It’s time! Irene’s having her lambs!” Somehow I mustered the wherewithal to turn off the burner before I ran out, hoping not to miss the lambs sliding out, slick and easy. We all ran to her, like a pack of wild monkeys, whereupon she stood up, startled, and stopped pushing altogether. Oh, space. Yes. We’ll give you some space. Sorry, Momma. After supper, I bundled up and went out to sit with her. I was quiet, on the periphery, the way any good midwife is until called into the service of delivery. I saw her pushing more, waited for that miraculous moment when the lamb would emerge…and nothing. I stayed until I was frozen through to the bone. I went to bed, setting the alarm to check her in a few hours. And then again, a few hours later, returned to my bed and re-set the alarm. Morning came. No lambs. But she was still pushing, and hard. I donned the shoulder-length OB gloves, lubed up, and carefully lifted her tail. Quite certainly, it was at this point that I cursed my lack of experience. I lamented the fact that I had not yet witnessed a normal birth. I mentally beat myself up for not knowing what exactly it was that I saw. It wasn’t an emerging lamb, and I suspected it was the start of a vaginal prolapse. I knew very little about it, but I knew it was not good. I called the vet. Normally, a shepherd takes care of all but the most serious conditions that come up in the raising of sheep. A normal, more experienced shepherd could diagnose and treat prolapse without the help of a vet, but I was neither. Next time, I’m on it.
Prolapse has a high genetic link. We realized that we would have to cull Irene from the flock and would also need to cull any lambs she bore us to keep the defect from cropping up again in her offspring. This was the beginning of the end, you see. We tried to figure out how we might be able to keep her without breeding her further, but winter would have been the sticking point – how could we possibly keep her from the amorous advances of Sam the Sham? We couldn’t have two sheep houses. But she was Irene, or “My Girl Irene” as each of us called her, forcryingoutloud. We sang to her. The fact that we have so many pictures of her is because she was always, with Gloria, the first to greet us. The angst we felt in trying to figure all this out was counterbalanced by the ridiculous nature of the “treatment” for prolapse – a plastic, ironically-uterus-shaped thing that I had to repeatedly shove up in Irene’s business. I was all set to report this all to you, to highlight the strange turn this gig as Sheep Midwife had taken, because there’s something so almost-funny about repeatedly having to shove a ewe’s vagina back into place. And her prognosis was good – most ewes are able to lamb while the retainer is in place and everyone comes out unscathed, at least until they get plucked out of the gene pool. But this Sunday, we returned home from an overnight away to find a stillborn lamb on the pasture, and Irene struggling to expel the afterbirth. The lamb was tiny, a dappled black ram, and I couldn’t figure out how it wasn’t one of multiples, given the small size. Later, as I mulled it over in my head, I realized that the lamb was far from fully developed. I guess it had been dead in-utero for a while.
On Monday morning I was scrambling, trying to figure out what to do about the fact that Irene still hadn’t expelled the placenta. I tried milking her, knowing from my own experience how lactation stimulates the production of Oxytocin, which helps contract the uterus. Her udder was soft and yielding, not at all bursting at the seams like it should have been without a vigorous little one suckling. Time. It was all I had left to give her at that point, having depleted my bag of tricks. I’d give her some more time to wait and see what happened, I decided. And she quietly passed away.
The moment animals cross the proverbial threshold of the barn door, there is also an implicit understanding that Death comes with them. We hope to minimize the visits, while doing all we can to foster good health and careful management. Hens and roosters and god-knows-how-many chicks have died here, each one leaving a little callous on the tender hearts we brought with us at the start of this adventure. But the wound of losing a sheep, Our Girl Irene, is one that’s quite a bit bigger. We miss her already. All we have of her is a bag of crudely-shorn wool that I was desperate to salvage. I hope I can make something good of it, something warm and comforting to remind us of her.