For the Love of Lambs
As I’ve mentioned before, mid-February is the beginning of lambing season here in the mid-Atlantic. Although it seems a bit counter-intuitive for lambs to be born in the dead of winter, the 4-H show market dictates to an extent when the best time for lambing should be.
To have the biggest, most well-developed and well-muscled lambs for the show season in late summer, the earlier you can get them delivered the better. Most farms have nice, cozy barns with deep straw bedding to house the lambs with their mothers for the first few weeks of life (in little pens called “jugs”), until the little ones are strong enough to brave the cold, so really the only one to complain about this early lambing season is the vet.
I don’t mind too much, though, because a lamb is just one of those things in the world that has the ability to make you smile no matter how bad your day is going. The same thing goes for kittens. Lambs are just super. (This is not to be confused with the similar looking sentence: Lambs are just supper. This applies later in the year when they aren’t cute anymore.)
Who can resist a little white lamb bounding through the pasture, only to make a mad dash toward its mother and at the last minute do a wild leap, making a perfect landing on top of her back? That’s what I thought: No one can.
Of course, many things can go wrong during a lambing. For one thing, there’s usually more than one lamb in there (many common sheep breeds deliver twins or triplets), and they sometimes get tangled up or all want to enter the world at the same time. Sometimes, you’ve got what you think is the two front feet of one lamb, when you really have one front foot of Lamb A and one back foot of Lamb B and the nose of Lamb C, all insisting that they’ve discussed their options and really, this is the best way out - as a team - and it’s your job to politely decline their proposal and re-organize the group in a more orderly and feasible solution; namely, one at a time, please.
Other times, the ewe has a condition called ring womb. A poorly understood and very frustrating condition that is thought to be genetic, this term merely describes a failure of the ewe’s cervix to dilate, which obviously makes vaginal delivery impossible. A C-section is usually the only fix for this problem, so there’s that fun to deal with. I have actually grown to enjoy goat and sheep C-sections, as they are small enough to not require copious amounts of strength (unlike a bovine C-section, which I find to be quite challenging). Also, I always feel a sheep C-section is like a surprise party – you never what you’re going to get. Will it be a single lamb, or three?
One thing I have learned is to always make sure I have enough helpers around for a C-section, for precisely that reason. One spring I did a sheep C-section with only the owner there to help me. Of course this was precisely when there were triplets AND it was starting to rain (we were doing the surgery outside). Needless to say, we were busy.
I guess at this point I should elaborate on my surgical suite: it is usually a bale of straw in whatever barn I’m in at the time. With slight sedation and a local anesthetic to numb where I make the abdominal incision, I have the ewe lying on her side with a surgical drape over the surgery site. My hair is pulled back, long gloves are pulled up to my armpits, and away we go, searching for lambs with sometimes the only light source coming from the client holding a flashlight behind me.
Of course the absolute best part of lambing is also the scariest. Sometimes, after a tough delivery, you’ll finally pull out a lamb that is awfully limp and awfully quiet. Looking at the distraught client, you shake your head in a universal sign of “this doesn’t look good” while you grab some doxapram, a drug used to help stimulate respiration. After a few chest-pumps to help blood circulation, you pause and feel for a pulse. And then suddenly, a deep sigh comes from the tiny little chest and you hear, “BLAHHHHH!!!!!” as the little booger screams obscenities to the world. He’s alive! Sigh. I love lambs.
Dr. Anna O'Brien