I recently visited Morrison’s farm for a week for my first experience of industrial farm work (as opposed to the city farm at which I worked for 8 days), which was great! I was lucky enough to see lambing and calving, as well as a visit from the farm vet.
Before visiting the farm, I had never realised how much thought goes into lambing, such as the techniques farmers have for making sure the lambs are well distributed, so to speak. The first interesting case I saw was a lamb who had a still birth during the night, the large head of the lamb indicating that its birth had taken too long and that it had been strangled. Because of this stillbirth, the shepherd wet twinned another lamb onto the ewe. However, on returning in the morning he found that the ewe had had another lamb, but this one alive. Because the ewe was not producing enough milk, he had to “unnattach” the adopted lamb. However, because peak season had not yet begun on that day, he could not wet twin the adopted lamb onto another ewe as there had been no other births immediately before. However, there were a few ewes who had lost their only lambs to stillbirths, who were still producing milk. Because he could not wet twin the lamb on, he put one of these ewe in the clamp and allowed the lamb to suckle. He explained to me that although this probably annoys the ewe at the time, it is good in the long run as it allows her to get rid of her milk, and orphans are expensive to feed. Besides, in a day or so the ewe forgets the smell of her own lamb and assumes that the adopted lamb is hers, around which time the shepherd can unclamp the ewe and allow her to see and tend to the lamb as if it were hers.
Another really interesting case was a heavily pregnant ewe who looked to be producing a lot of milk but had only scanned to have one lamb. So, the shepherd decided that she could probably take a newborn lamb who had been rejected by his mother. He caught the adoptee lamb on the way to seeing to the pregnant ewe. When we arrived at the pen, the ewe seemed to be struggling so he began to intervene… looking back, its clear that neither of us expected what was coming: he could not get the lamb out! He sat there for 20 minutes or so, applying more and more lube, struggling against the moaning sheep to extract the seemingly huge creature inside her. About 5 minutes in, he exclaimed, amidst grunts “it has horns!”. No wonder the sheep was in pain, and you could certainly tell; I’d never heard such a tortured sound escape the mouth of a sheep!
Finally, after the momentous struggle, the lamb popped out. And it was gigagantic- a whopping 9kg, and easily the size of many of the month-2month old lambs that I had seen earlier in the week. Needless to say, the adoptee lamb who had originally been carried along to be twinned on was unknowingly rejected by yet another mother; she was going to need all the milk she could possibly produce for such a huge lamb.
The final unusual case with which I was involved was yet another ewe with a stillbirth. The farmer had an inkling that she was a good mother, seeing as she was producing lots of milk and still licking the lamb half a day later. Another lamb in the neighbouring pen didn’t exactly seem to be the apple of her mother’s eye; she was being barged into and squashed by the seemingly frantic ewe. The farmer then decided that he would allow the calmer ewe to adopt this lamb but, again, there was no placental fluid. Because the lamb seemed quite weak because its mother had not been allowing it to feed, and because it was lame, the farmer tried an alternative method to the clamp: skinning. He skinned the dead lamb in the barn, tossed the carcass aside and literally dressed the adoptee lamb in the old lamb’s skin. As shocking as this was, it served two purposes. Firstly, it gave the lamb the scent of the ewe’s original lamb, and secondly it kept it warm. Sure enough, it worked, and the lamb was happily adopted.
What was really interesting to see in all of these cases was the shepherd’s attitude to his sheep. Although was somewhat immune to deaths, seeing hundreds every week, he still seemed to really care about his animals. For example, one morning he came along on his scooter carrying a lamb’s (it had been devoured by a fox) head joking that he was going to put it on his bedpost, whereas on the other hand he seemed to be determined to give his animals as good a quality of life as possible. This was evident with the skinning case. I remember him saying, “there’s something about this lamb that makes me sure that I want to give it a chance”. He also said a few times “it never gets old”, as he watched with admiration the newborn lamb lifting its head as the mother began to lick it clean. It just makes you realise that animals are their life as well as their job, making the job of the vet all the more important, I suppose!