Miracle Max (a wonderful movie character, played by Billie Crystal, in The Princess Bride) observed that “There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.” Not to put too morbid a spin on the introduction to this post, but a relative of ours is known to have said, “It’s not really dead until it’s warm and dead.” We had an event here over the weekend which brought both of these maxims back from the deep recesses of memory.

We were walking across the pasture first thing in the morning to bottle Greta’s lambs, when we saw Margaret off by herself in a distant corner. Sure enough, she had lambed overnight. Margaret is a yearling and was kept from Henry during breeding season – but had obviously managed a rendezvous somehow. As we approached we saw two lambs  – one was dead and the other, in the words of Miracle Max, was mostly dead. Margaret had deposited both lambs in the middle of a patch of ground devoid of grass which the night time rain had turned into a mud puddle. The live lamb was a dirty mess, had little muscle tone, could not raise its head, and had its back legs splayed at the hip. The only signs of life were nearly imperceptible whimpers made in response to the calls of its mother. We toweled it off and rubbed its sides to stimulate respiration. We then trimmed its umbilical and discovered that it was a little, a very little, girl.

The Shetland is a slow-growing sheep breed of fairly small stature. Because we put ewes out to breed in the fall and lambs are born in early spring, ewe lambs are just six months old when the breeding season rolls around once more. If a ewe lamb is bred in the fall, she will be just a year old at lambing. We believe this is too young – and Margaret’s story serves to illustrate this point. Although Margaret herself is in great condition – both her lambs were very small and, of course, one was dead and the other, in the words of Miracle Max, was just slightly alive. This is probably why twinning is relatively rare in yearlings.

In any case, we cleaned the lamb and got hold of Margaret who was still trying to come to terms with motherhood. We made sure that the little one got a good drink of the all-important colostrum. We brought both mother and daughter into the barn. The two spent the remainder of the day getting to know one another in an enclosed, warm, quiet, and clean space. Every couple of hours we helped the little one stand to suckle. By evening the lamb was able to get her legs under her, find Margaret’s udder, and suckle on her own. Margaret too, seemed to benefit from the alone time with her new daughter. As of this afternoon the pair seem to be doing just fine. We are expecting storms tonight so will keep them in until tomorrow – then they will go out if the weather is fine. We don’t want to keep Margaret off grass too long and create readjustment problems transitioning back from hay.

There have been numerous occasions here at the farm, involving calves, kids, lambs, goslings, piglets, rabbits, and chicks, when an individual, having been born late on a cold night, has been found chilled and “mostly dead” the next morning. When this happens there is, often, a vicious cycle (or positive feedback loop) which sets in … the little one gets cold, then weak, and does not then have the strength to eat … which weakens it more … and so on. One needs to be constantly vigilant. When found, these little ones need to be warmed and fed, immediately. Whether you get hold of Mom and assist the little one to feed from the teat, bottle, or even tube-feed the animal, is secondary – the important thing is that you get nourishment into the animal quickly. If it is very cold it may not be able to swallow and you’ll need to warm it first and then feed it – this is to avoid shock, drowning, or both. We have had animals in our kitchen on many (memorable) occasions. This space has bawled, bleated, cheeped, cackled, gobbled, squealed,  and all the rest – in support of this most important of First Aid protocols.

The lesson to be learned is that good husbandry requires constant vigilance.

My daughter once had two t-shirts made up for me as Holiday gifts … one read It’s always something … the other said It’s never nothing – how true.

By the way – the title of this post – Tinkerbell – is the name we have given this new, little, lamb.

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