I Really Don’t Remember Much of March
by Catherine Bennett of Heuvelton, NY
“Here, hand me the bottle,” I instruct my 12 year old apprentice, Bridget. She and I are on a mission to save these damn sheep, even if it kills us. Or them. This is ridiculous.
Completely unsure as to why our normally healthy flock is weakening, and concerned for the growing lambs inside the 20-some odd pregnant ewes, Bridget and I are shoving selenium pills (Puritan’s Pride, two for one sale a few years back) down the throat of everyone we can catch. The flock consists of three families, around thirty members in total, and I know that the older, stronger ewes — Trianna and Nala — will be impossible to nab. I can hold Hershey, though, and Ginny, while Bridget squeezes the selenium between their clenched jaws.
Selenium deficiency is known as White Muscle Disease, and can lead to weakened — well, muscles — pale mucus membranes, and, eventually, death. I’ve seen one case of it, over a decade ago, in a ram lamb. I really don’t know that WMD is the problem here, but I also don’t know what is. It will be another two months, and many, many deaths, before I do.
“There it is!” I smack the table and point at the computer screen, where pictures of edema-stricken sheep enhance an article on ruminant parasites. “Barber pole worm,” I read, “is a blood-sucking parasite found in wet pastures. The first thing to be done is take the flock off the affected area and put them on uncontaminated grass.” Okaaayyy. It’s Winter. Like that’s gonna happen. I take down as many notes as I can and tape the scrap envelope to the fridge. “Visible. Lives in the abomasum. Can survive outside of host for 2-3 months. Lives in the bottom four inches of grass. Can be found in water droplets. Will lie dormant until host is vulnerable, as in pregnancy or Winter. Resistant to most commercial parasitizes.” Not only do I not want to use Ivermectin, it sounds as though it wouldn’t be effective if I did.
I turn to Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable, a 1976 publication by Juliette de Bairacli Levy. Filled with the wisdom of “Materia Medica Botanica,” it has yet to steer me wrong in the organic treatment of ill animals. “Garlic,” Levy writes, “is the great specific.” She goes on to explain that sheep will naturally forage for wild alliums, and that mustard seed is a safe vermifuge for lambs. Raw grated carrot. Raw desiccated coconut. Pumpkin, nasturtium, papaya, grape and melon seeds. Radishes, turnips, charcoal. I try to memorize it all; over the next month, the spine of this book will automatically crack open to page 143 every time I need.
It is May. I am exhausted, still. I spent the entirety of March in a sort of waking coma. Each day consisted of at least six trips to the barn, each night; checks at 9 pm, 11 pm, 2 am and 4. Frigid temperatures added to the trouble we were already having, and my brain is crammed full with what I’ve learned and utilized, yet not had time to process. Barber pole worm, it seems, makes your sheep anemic — that was why Bridget and I were noticing pale mucous membranes. Anemia, of course, leads to a whole host of other problems: we lost a first-time mom with her unborn lamb still tucked firmly inside. Lambs born apparently healthy dropped dead the moment their mothers began to wean them. Older ewes held on with tenacity I’ve never witnessed before, comforting others as their babies passed. I spent so much money on organic beets and pounds of garlic powder. I raided my mother’s spice cabinet with absolutely no regard to her culinary needs. We mixed gallons and gallons of diatomaceous earth with the armloads of dried mugwort and sweet annie in the barn, astonished at how fast the ewes could chew I spread turmeric and mustard and every spicy food I could think of in buckets of grain, something we never feed the sheep. We went through molasses like a cookie factory, and over the course of three weeks managed to rebuild the old barnyard fence, successfully bringing every living ewe, lamb and ram into a clean, barber-pole worm free area.
Successfully. That’s a word with a different meaning now. When called upon, our local Cornell Cooperative Extension had nothing to offer but copper and chemicals, and a nagging recommendation to take their FOMACHA worming class. When the subject of barber-pole worm was broached, my old professor admitted that, rather than watch her flock suffer, she had butchered every. Single. Sheep. Every online post stated that losing one-third of your flock was the best, the very best, that anyone could hope for. Well, let’s see — I stopped counting the number of this season’s lambs, but I think we lost around 26. One new mom. One adult… it’s hard to be sure when I am so sleep deprived. But Chocolate Chip, the third ram? We saved him. Clementine, the matriarch, and Emmaline, her mother, are still standing. Trianna made it, thank the heavens. Flossie. Moon. Barberry. J. J. Fiona. So many of them came out stronger, will be stronger. And young Papaya. The only surviving lamb. A giant of a ram, he is doing well, keeping up with his mother and family. Success, they say, means something different to everyone. But here’s what I know: we did not lose one-third of our already established flock. Unlike the lambs, the adults will thrive, and have more babies next year. I now know what to look for when checking everyone’s health. And in every ecosystem, there must be a way to balance the needs of each organism. If the flock were taking up too much space, if they were eating more grass than the pastures could handle, if they — was my dog, Ada, told me — had to die to make space for the sanctuary-seekers on their way, then so be it. I’m not the brilliant one here. I’m not the one making the decisions. I am just one of many, dancing this fine line of life, learning from teachers as complex and wise as these 12 millimeter, red-striped, blood-sucking barber-pole worms. And with all due respect to them, they’re a pain in the ass.