Nobody will ever love you more than an orphan lamb. Well, except maybe your mother. By the way, Happy Motherís Day to all you mothers out there. Unfortunately, Iíve written todayís column because of some experiences Iíve had with some less than stellar mothers during the last few weeks. Sheep mothers, that is.
The term "orphan" is really a misnomer. Most of these lambs are not victims of a terrible maternal tragedy, but rather the product of bad timing, cold weather, mastitis, or a mother lacking the necessary instincts and being a little "squirrelly."
A strong ewe-lamb bond is essential to successful sheep production. This bond is dependent on a lamb that stands quickly after birth, finds the teat, latches on, and sucks. Studies in the United Kingdom have shown that all of these steps are inherited, and careful consideration should be given to them when making flock selections.
Many factors can disrupt this bond, the chief one being hypothermia. Hypothermic lambs also become hypoglycemic. Cold, weak lambs are unable to stand or nurse, and will soon die without intervention.
Other things can happen to impede this bonding process as well. A first born lamb may wander away as the ewe is giving birth to a second or third. Conversely, a ewe may wander from the last of a set of triplets. Or, as was the case with my friend, Little 715, some lambs are simply born bull-headed.
Big 715 gave birth to Little 715 and her sister one night before bedtime. The sister rose incredibly quickly, took two steps to the teat and latched on. Surely, the other lamb would follow her lead, I thought, and I went to bed.
The next morning upon entering the barn, I was greeted by the unmistakable wail of a hungry lamb. Little 715 was up and about, but showed no interest in nursing. The only thing she cared about was letting me know she wanted fed.
I held her close to her motherís udder and tried to put the lambís mouth on the teat, but she would have no part of it. Just as I tried to send a stream of colostrum her way, Little 715 turned her head, and guess who the lucky recipient was? In the millisecond before gagging and wretching, Iím pleased to report that it was saltier than expected.
Little 715 was one stubborn lamb. The more I wrestled with her, the harder she fought back. I finally gave up, milked the ewe, and fed her with an esophageal feeding tube. At least she was full, and the incessant noise silenced.
A few hours later, I tried again and was again rebuffed. I surrendered once more and offered her a bottle, which she chugged right down. This went on for days, all the while with her sister nursing in front of her. Fortunately, Big 715 was patient with both of us.
By day 7, I desperately needed their lambing pen for other moms and lambs, and kicked the whole family out with the rest of the flock. But, not to worry, Little 715 wasnít hard to find when mealtime came around.
Most of our lambs like to lounge together in groups of 10 to 15 in the middle of their pens. Little 715 was usually in the center of her pile. Iíd call her name, "Here, Little 715." A tiny head would pop up, make a "baa," and sheíd come running, maneuvering through the maze of panels and gates.
As the days went by, I thought her belly seemed a bit fuller, and she wasnít sucking with quite the same enthusiasm. Was she cheating on me?
Two days later I had my answer. When I called her name, not a head raised. Suddenly, from somewhere behind me, she and her sister raced across the pen to where their mother was Ö and lunch!
Of course, I was happy that my nest was somewhat emptier, but it was also bittersweet. Kids ó they grow up so fast.
Between Little 715, a ewe with mastitis, a couple of squirrelly ewes, and an old ewe that didnít have enough milk, I had a total of nine bottle lambs. And do you know the most important thing they taught me? To chill out and relax.
This year, my maternity leave (lambing season) overlapped both Dr. Saraís and Dr. Aprilís, so juggling my "real job" life with my fantasy sheep life was, at times, a tad stressful. But the task of feeding the lambs had to be done, and they could only eat so fast. For half an hour, three times a day, the rest of the world just had to wait. My babies needed their bottles. Happy Motherís Day!
Dr. John Jones: Silence of the bull-headed lamb