There are times I feel a bit overwhelmed. A bit out of my depth. Like when I’m trying to move a mob of cattle on my own and the dog decides to join in the fun and move them the other way. Like when the pig high-jumped out of the ute en route to a new home and everybody watched from their cars as I tried to rugby tackle it and get it safely back on board. Like when the siphons to the water troughs failed, twice, on hot days last summer, and our cows were likely to go dangerously thirsty, and the pump was with a man in the village being fixed.
That’s nothing compared to the big ones, though. There’s nothing like a birth to make you feel edgy. I was inordinately nervous watching our favourite sow, Tinkerbell, give birth a few weeks back, and, yes, it was a tough labour and, no, I had never felt inside a pig before. Both calves born at home have had difficulties around that time. Them or their mothers. A lamb died in my arms only a few short weeks back after struggling to suckle. Even being at the birth of my own son was remarkably stressful, not least for his mother.
So when I saw one of our new ewes go into labour in the middle of the day, despite several other successful births, I wasn’t completely at ease. I checked her. Often. And all the initial signs were as normal. The bag, a foot, the nose and a little bit of the head. But where have the contractions gone? And it can’t be normal to still have the same amount of the lamb showing an hour later, can it?
When I first watched the ewe go into labour, the lamb’s head was coming out nestled just above what appeared to be its front legs. A nose poking out above the feet. A lamb is born like a diver going into the water, with the front legs cradling its head. An hour later, a pink tongue was dangling out of the lamb’s mouth, though all that was showing of the head was still just the mouth and nose. I don’t consider a tongue hanging out of an animal to be a good sign, though when I touched it, it was sucked back in. I was steeling myself to call someone who knows about sheep. Ten minutes later, and that same tongue had gone purple. I screamed for Sadie to help and by the time she ran up the paddock, the tongue had gone black.
I don’t know how to pull a lamb. But I do know how they’re supposed to present themselves for birth, and when I felt around the back end of the ewe, only one of the forelegs was in the right spot. I gently pushed the head back in, felt around for the other leg, and pulled firmly, but calmly, out and down (I’d been primed for the downward pull by an old dairy farmer when our calf was born). Out came the second leg. I tugged on both legs and the face appeared, then the whole head. Then the body fairly slipped out without fuss. Sadie was holding the ewe, though by now the woolly mum was almost down on the ground. Relief washed over me. The lamb was out. The mother was fine. But a few seconds later and I realised the lamb wasn’t moving. Wasn’t breathing. A bit of a nudge, a rub to remove some goop from its face, another waggle to get it to do something, anything to show life. Suddenly it started coughing, almost. Gasping for air. And within seconds what could’ve been a ball of wet wool was breathing evenly and waggling its head. I left it for several minutes but the mother seemed distracted or confused by the experience. So I rubbed the newborn lamb all over its mother’s head and let her clean it off.
Half an hour later the lamb had suckled. I felt taller that day. More the farmer. More like I had contributed something worthwhile to the day. Would the lamb have been born alive if I hadn’t intervened? Probably not. Would the ewe have lived if I’d not checked her for a couple of days? Who can say. When you grow and rear things, you take on responsibilities, often without realising the enormity or scope of them.
Vegetarians may not understand how I can care for an animal that is destined for the pot. How it makes me sick to think of an animal dying in the field and suffering. But I do see my role as caretaker. I have killed hundreds of slugs in the past couple of weeks. Crushed a few snails, accidentally sliced quite a few worms in half. Killing things to protect our crops is what we do. But when I can give or maintain life, be it helpful microbes in the soil, the golden finch nest in the apple tree, or be a part of the successful birth of a lamb, I try to do that too.