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Lambing
Lambing

Lambing

from Golden Fleece, by Hughie Call

The spring chinooks have come and gone. Again and again those magic south winds have swept across the ranch, releasing the grass from winter’s grip. One day hard-crusted snow blanketed the land — the next, it had vanished completely. The melting snow, unable to penetrate the frozen earth, had found an outlet in rushing, eddying streams, and water was running from every direction.

Strange winds — deceptive ones, which no native has ever been able to explain to my satisfaction. I’ve been told that the chinook is the indraft of a storm center; a high, dry wind that has been heated by compression in its swift descent to the lower levels.

The woolgrower has a deep respect and affection for the chinook. It is one of his sturdiest allies, for it unlocks his grass at a season of the year when he needs it desperately, and a chinook that blows in February or March ensures green grass for May lambing.

Perhaps this is the reason that no stockman will admit its discomforts. From Tom’s first description of a chinook I got the idea it was a warm, balmy wind. Well, maybe it is when it first strikes the snow, but the moment moisture rises and water begins to run, it is bitterly cold — the sort of damp, disagreeable cold that penetrates the warmest garments and sets your teeth to chattering like castanets. I, too, am grateful for the benefits it brings, but I still know when I’m cold.

It is late May in Montana and we have been lambing for three weeks. As usual, the ranch has been a bedlam. Every man, dog, car, truck and buckboard has been pressed into active service, but in the past few days things have begun to thin out a bit, for lambing is almost over.

The drop bands (sheep to be lambed) have dwindled to one-fourth their original size, and on every hill and each grassy hollow there are small bunches of ewes and lambs which have been separated and branded according to the ages of the lambs. Later, when the lambs have been docked, these small bunches will again be thrown into the ewes’ original herd and placed in the care of a herder.

Lambing

In the past my contribution to lambing has consisted in the main of nothing more than errands, but there were complications this year and I got a new job. The draft and defense industries on the West Coast absorbed a number of men from this valley and we found ourselves shorthanded at the start. Tom scoured the country for lambers and I did the same. Eventually we managed to gather up a skeleton crew, but it consisted largely of old men and young lads.

Lambing had no more begun when one of these lads was inducted into the army. He’d been driving tepee truck for a drop band at Sunrise Camp. Since no one could be found to take his place, I offered to try it. The arrangement was supposed to be temporary but it did not turn out that way and I’m glad.

Driving tepee truck is a humble job, beneath the dignity of a lamber, but it suits me fine. The ten-mile drive through the hills to Sunrise Camp is beautiful in the early morning. This is the season between snow and flowers, when the first soft green of grass and moss spreads over the hills with a promise. The long hard winter is over. Next month the ranch will be literally carpeted with wild flowers — bird’s-bills, dog tooth violets, crocuses, wild irises, evening primroses and forget-me-nots — a tangled, riotous fulfillment in colors no artist could paint. Beautiful, yes, but I like this season better. For everywhere I look I can see the stir of new life — in the tender, pale green of the hills, rolling on and on to meet the horizon; in the deepening green of slender, silver-trunked quaking aspen; in the sweet, sharp-scented fragrance of pine and spruce and fir, as the sap runs through their branches.

The birds are nesting again. I see an eagle soar through the cloudless sky, wheel in midair and come to light on some rocky, forbidding peak. A curlew takes fright at the sound of my motor… There is a plaintive cry and, fascinated, I watch the time-old trick of the curlew mother — the ridiculous pretense of a mortally wounded bird, with flapping wings and staggering, painful gait. Pathetic camouflage, distracting attention from a nest in near-by rocks. A pheasant struts out of the currant bushes and I slam on the brakes as he crosses the road, unafraid, eyeing me arrogantly, his brilliant shining head cocked on one side. And then I hear a sound that is to me the most beautiful in all the world — the liquid, golden notes of the meadow lark.

My truck rattles over the last of the hills and I look down on Sunrise Camp. The drop band is spread out below me, like a magic white carpet moving rhythmically over the green of the range. From the position of the sheep I know I’m late again; that already the herd has started out to graze. I speed up my truck, leaving the road now and bumping through sagebrush and rocks.

But once I pull up in the wake of the herd, I shall have plenty of time. Time, while waiting in the truck to catch up on my reading and correspondence, time to chat with the herders and lambers. These conversations will not be altogether satisfactory since they are sure to be one-sided. However, I need only look around me to understand why the men who lamb this particular drop band have little time for talk.

Lambing

Two-year-old ewes, lambing for the first time, are notoriously poor mothers. They’re even more temperamental and skittish than the older ewes, which have learned from experience that any attempt to shed the responsibilities of motherhood will prove futile.

It is often difficult for a young ewe to give normal birth to her lamb, and having done so nothing would suit her better than to skip out and leave it to shift for itself. For speed and endurance the two-year-old ewe has most animals bested, which is bad luck for the lamber since he has to run her down, hobble her, and confine her in a small canvas tepee with her lamb until she decides to accept it.

The drop band is constantly on the move. The ewes are heavy with lamb, clumsy and unbeautiful. I drive the tepee truck slowly in their wake until a lamber signals. Then there will be a fifteen-minute halt while the lamber unloads and sets up a tepee and gives chase to an unwilling mother and her lamb.

I was perfectly content with my job until one morning last week when I climbed down from the truck and walked over to a spot where one of the lambers was ‘jacketing’ a lamb. I’ve seen this procedure many times but it has never ceased to interest me.

‘Mind if I look on for a while?’ I asked.

The man was one of the oldsters. He’d been with us many years at this season and I knew him well. He sat back on his heels and grinned up at me. ‘Remember the first time you came out alone to see the lambing?’

I remembered all right and I grinned too, but as I stood watching him deftly skin the dead lamb and place its pelt about an orphan, I had the uncomfortable conviction that my mirth had been a mistake. His words could be taken two ways. They might have been spoken in a burst of camaraderie, or might just as well conveyed a hint that the drop band is no place for a woman to be. I wanted to believe the former, but somehow I knew better. The events of the day he mentioned stood out too clearly in my mind, and I hadn’t been welcome.

Lambing

Lambing is probably the most interesting phase of sheep-raising, but since that day a little has gone a long way with me. For one thing, I could never bear to see anything suffer, and a ewe in labor is tortured with pain. Her labor closely resembles that of a woman, the pains coming at regular intervals and mounting in severity. Sometimes the ordeal is long drawn out — in cases of breech presentation or the misplacement of a lamb’s head — and on such occasions the lamber must come to the ewe’s aid or she will die. As a general rule a sheep hates to be handled. She will struggle wildly or attempt to escape when the least restriction is put upon her freedom, but when a ewe cannot give normal birth to her lamb she knows it and welcomes the aid of a lamber as gratefully as a woman would welcome help from her physician.

The lambs were dropping fast on the afternoon I’ve mentioned. Climbing out of the truck I counted nine men in the herd and all of them seemed to be desperately busy. At any rate, not one of them looked up to greet me. For all the attention they paid, I might have been part of the landscape.

But I refused to be discouraged. I had come to see the lambing and I threaded my way resolutely through the herd until I stood beside a ewe which was down and quite evidently in hard labor. Her body was writhing with pain. For the first time I began to doubt the wisdom of this visit. I had a sickish feeling in the pit of my stomach and the muscles in my throat felt queer and tight.

‘Hello,’ I said to the lamber who was attending the ewe. He grunted but did not look up. I stood there uncertainly for a moment waiting for him to say something. He didn’t.

Presently I broke the silence, which was growing strained. ‘Will her lamb be born soon?’ I faltered.

‘Not till I take it,’ he muttered, still not looking up.

I know now that the poor man was violently embarrassed, but I was too concerned over the state of the ewe to be aware of it then. ‘Why don’t you take it?’ I cried, dismayed eyes riveted on the poor creature’s twisting body. ‘Oh, don’t let her suffer…’

‘Reckon I got to.’ The outraged midwife flung me a resentful glance, knelt down, turned the lamb in its mother’s womb and delivered the ewe.

The lamb lay motionless for a moment, then scrambled up on small, wobbly legs and began to blat gustily. As I watched he lowered his head and sniffed. Then his body was galvanized into sudden, frenzied action. He made a bee-line for his mother and pushed his muzzle again and again against her teats.

Wild-eyed, the young ewe leaped to her feet and made a frantic clash for freedom. But the lamber was ready for this move, for he caught one of her legs with a sheep crook and hauled her back.

Holding her thrashing body against his own he allowed the newborn lamb to suckle. When its little body was distended with milk, the man hobbled the mother, set up a tepee, shut the two inside together and stalked sulkily away. He wasted no time explaining what another lamber later explained, that the lamb would surely have died of starvation had it not been forced on the ewe.

I moved on now and came presently to a ewe which was standing over a dead lamb, blatting pathetically. I had been there but a moment when one of the men strode up with another lamb under his arm. This lamber was cooperative, if not exactly cordial (Tom said he was plain lazy and would rather ‘gab than work’). At any rate, he explained the process of ‘jacketing’ to me in detail.

The lamb he proposed to jacket was a twin of another ewe which had only enough milk to raise one lamb. He let me hold the twin in my arms while he skinned the dead lamb. I watched him split the pelt along the hindquarters, catch hold of either side, and peel it off as easily as one might take off a sweater. He shook the jacket right side out and cut the front legs several inches from the body of the pelt. Then he made a slit in each of the hind legs.

All this time the bereaved mother was objecting frantically. Her eyes blazed. She pawed the earth and raised her voice in protest. Several times she backed up and made for the lamber with lowered head, but each time he shoved her away as casually as he might have brushed off a fly. When the jacket was ready he took the lamb from my arms, poked its knobby hind legs in the rear slits, thrust its head through the neck and its front legs into the sleeves he had left on the forelegs. Then he looked over his work and set the lamb down gently on its feet.

That lamb was a fantastic sight and I broke into helpless laughter. He had two tails, and the ragged edges of the pelt about neck, rear end and legs made him look as though he were in the process of peeling. But his jacket fitted. There was not a wrinkle or a crease. It might have grown there.

Until that moment the distracted mother had been moving about restlessly — as close as she dared. But she was startled and indignant when the lamb made a rush for her teats. She backed away and would have bolted had the lamber not caught her by the leg. He had a hard time hanging on to her twisting body until the intruder found a teat. The ewe continued to be stubborn. She held her head in the air and her body became rigid and unyielding. But soon curiosity got the best of her and she sniffed… You could see her bewilderment as she hurriedly sniffed again. She caught the scent of her dead lamb this time. Her body relaxed and she lay still until the twin had got its fill. When the lamber released her she walked away contentedly, with the lamb frisking along at her heels.

‘That doesn’t seem quite fair,’ I protested, ‘foisting the twin on the poor thing — making her believe it’s her own.’

“She doesn’t think it’s her own,’ the lamber scoffed; ‘she’s just lonesome and sorry, and the scent of the jacket eases her up a bit. She’ll adopt the twin now and raise it good. We can take off the jacket in a week. Tom’d lose a lot of lambs and have a heap more dry ewes if we didn’t jacket.’

This lamber made a mistake when he took time to explain things to me, for I followed him around the rest of the afternoon. I watched him do several jobs of jacketing and a neat delivery in a case of breech presentation. If he was embarrassed by my presence, I failed to notice it. I was disappointed when he did not ask for a job at the beginning of the next lambing season and I often wondered why. Years later someone told Torn that he said he wouldn’t work at Stonyacres if he never got a job. It seems the other lambers had teased him unmercifully. He wasn’t risking another visit from the Missus (whom he confided he couldn’t get ‘shet’ of) or some of her female kin.

I was taken aback when I heard this but I didn’t resent it. I never saw the man again, yet I’ve always felt I’d like to thank him. He was a good talker and he knew the habits and characteristics of sheep. Until that day I had thought of sheep collectively, in terms of herd or flock. He spoke of them as individuals — as different in temperament and habits as people are different — especially ewes with suckling lambs.

Through the years a ewe’s reaction to her offspring has continued to amaze me. It is so like a human mother’s reaction to her child. Some ewes are the maternal type, want their lambs from the start and are devoted mothers. They are stricken with grief if their lambs die from natural causes, become lost or are destroyed by coyotes. Other ewes, the restless, frivolous type, do not want to be bothered and would leave their lambs like a shot if given the chance. These differ from the human mother, however, since they make no bones of their distaste when a suckling lamb is thrust upon them. And yet this type of ewe, if forced to take her lamb, will in time, become devoted to it.

A human mother usually has prenatal ideas concerning her child. She may have her heart set on a blue-eyed curly headed baby girl, but when Fate sends her a boy with straight hair and brown eyes she accepts it complacently and loves it at once.

Not so the ewe. She seldom gets ideas, but let her get one and it’s impossible to sidetrack her — especially an older ewe. If an older ewe has given birth to twin lambs several times in succession, she takes it for granted that she should raise two lambs. Should a lambing season come when she drops a single lamb, or should one of her twins be jacketed for another ewe she is bitter and rebellious. Several times we have had ewes of this type which went out and kidnapped lambs in order to keep up the record.

I recall one ewe which for several seasons dropped twin black lambs. She was enormously proud of them and rather queened it over the rest of the ewes. When, one spring, she gave birth to one black lamb and one white she absolutely repudiated the white one and would have trampled it to death in her rage and disappointment, had a lamber not rescued it, and jacketed it for a ewe whose lamb had been killed by coyotes.

The frustrated mother seemed bewildered, and for days she wandered through the herd looking over every lamb that was dropped. One morning she stood in the offing and watched a ewe drop a black lamb. Before the real mother could get to her feet the old ewe calmly took possession of the lamb and permitted it to suckle. The real mother eventually had to be thrown into dry band (ewes which did not drop a lamb) because no matter how many desperate attempts she made to recover her lamb, the older sheep came out the winner. When the lambers became aware of the mixup it was too late to do anything about it. The lamb had accepted the wrong ewe and refused to suckle his mother. The old ewe knew what she wanted. She liked black lambs; they gave her a certain prestige in the herd and she intended to have them whether or no.

The older ewes have many peculiar quirks of character, but the most outstanding one is curiosity. They are as curious and persistently intrusive as small town gossip-mongers. The newborn lamb of another ewe never fails to attract their excited interest and this is something the lambers must guard against constantly. I’ve seen a bunch of old ewes barge up to a newborn lamb, when the lamber was busy elsewhere, and sniff and push and shove the little fellow until he became so weary and confused that for a time he refused to accept his own mother. Should the mother chance to be a young ewe, the situation becomes serious. When the lamb is presently driven by hunger to his mother’s teats, the ewe has decided that she prefers to be free, and it takes a lot of time and energy to convince her to the contrary.

However, once the relationship has been firmly established between a ewe and a lamb, it is a beautiful and amazing thing. The ewe is the most helpless of all four-footed creatures. Nature designed her that way. She has been provided with no adequate means of defending herself or her lamb — neither teeth nor horns nor heft. The only teeth a ewe has in her upper jaw are the grinders far back in the jaw. Few ewes have horns. Their bodies are not powerful enough to trample their adversaries into submission.

But ewes are almost human in their capacity for understanding. They know their limitations. To attempt defense can mean but one thing, and that thing death. Deep rooted in the species is a sense of caution which warns them to keep away from the thing they fear. Seldom do they take a stand, and when they do the courageousness of it is all the more splendid because of its futility.

I have known ewes to fight for their young with all the courage of a lion, to fight until death ended the unequal struggle. During the lambing season the coyotes are very active in this country. They stalk in small bunches, watching their chance for a kill. The ewe is wise. She scents danger and could easily make her escape, but it is no uncommon thing to find a badly mangled ewe near the carcass of her lamb, with the story of a supreme struggle written on the sagebrush and the rocks.

One example of the devotion that exists between a ewe and her lamb will never cease to cause me wonder and delight. This is the act of ‘mothering up’ which takes place when the two have been reunited after a separation. The first wholesale ‘mothering up’ occurs when the lambs are about a month old. At that time they are cut away from their mothers and run singly through a dodge gate to be docked. After they have been docked, and the male lambs castrated, they are again turned into the corral with the ewes.

What human mother could instantly locate her child if it were lost among a group of fifteen hundred children, and those children in a state bordering on panic? A ewe is supposed to be stupid, but this is no feat for her — nor is it any feat for her lamb.

Sheep look alike to me. I could not tell one range ewe from another if my life depended on it. But Tom can. He insists that their faces and blats are as individual as the faces and voices of people, and I’ve heard any number of sheepmen and herders say the same. I’m skeptical about their faces… but no one who has seen a flock ‘mother up’ could doubt that their blats are distinctive.

I’m always on hand for the ‘mothering up’ that takes place after docking. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. The gate will swing open slowly and then I shall see a miracle in the making. A sudden stir as a sea of small woolly heads jerk up in perfect unison… a rumble of baa-a-s from the other corral. Through the swirling dust I watch a lamb in the lead leap stiff-legged into the air — and land running. Now they are all in motion. The spell is broken… On and on they surge through that gate, like waters that break through a dam. For a few moments the air resounds to the chaos of frantic blats, of rushing, leaping hoofs. And then there is quiet broken only by the rustle of the wind through the trees, and the soft little sound of suckling lambs. The miracle has happened… Each lamb has found its mother and a pattern is complete!

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