Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Our first ever lambs.

It's been a tiring couple of days.
I would like to announce the birth, at 2:49 on Tuesday morning, of our first ever lamb!

And, half an hour later, the birth of our second ever lamb!

Before I carry on, I'd just like to say a massive thank you to the vets at Vets One Ltd in Crimplesham, West Norfolk. You'll understand when you read on.
Also, despite the angst, this is one of the most special things Sue and I have ever experienced. On our mantelpiece stands the motto "Have the courage to pursue your dreams". Moments like this are what that is all about.

But now a warning. This post contains images of birthing, so if you don't want to see the reality, scroll right down to the end. For, not unlike the current imminent royal birth, this has been an overly protracted affair.
This is also a long post with lots of detail for those who might find themselves in the same position as us. If you just want to see cute pictures, scroll right down to the end.

When we got him, he was supposed to have been castrated!!!

I'll take you back to last November, when we let Rambo in with the ewes. We weren't as methodical as we perhaps should have been about this. Most put a saddle of dye onto the ram so they know when the ewes have been covered. Most take the ram back out again so they can be fairly precise about expected lambing dates. Many have their sheep scanned so they know how many to expect (though there can be surprises). We did none of this but took a more laissez-faire attitude.

By late March it was clear that two of the 3 ewes were expecting. The earliest they could give birth, by my rough and ready calculations, was the beginning of April, going by an average of 145 days gestation. With any luck it would happen during our Easter holidays, one reason for leaving things a little later than many. Another reason is that I would prefer the lambs born when the grass is truly growing well. There's no hurry to get these lambs fattened, as Shetlands are a small native breed which really need to go into a second year.

We knew the signs of imminent labour - stargazing, separation from the flock, restlessness, pawing at the ground, lip curling. As soon as we observed these, we would bring the ewe down to the stables where we had a lambing block prepared.
So imagine Sue's surprise two weeks ago (while I had zoomed down overnight to the Scilly Isles) to find a lamb down in the sheep field. Unfortunately it was dead. Not nice, but part of real life smallholding. It would have been a very big lamb too.

Sue, with a little help from friends, brought the two pregnant ewes up to the stables and there they stayed, the still pregnant one and the bereaved. They would be happy with company and we wanted to be able to check on their health regularly.
Now, last weekend I began to think that the ewe which had given birth should be losing a bit of weight by now. If anything, she appeared to be getting bigger! The other one is so woolly that it's difficult to tell. It was then that Sue informed me that it was, in fact, the darker of the two which had already given birth! I was surprised to say the least. She had never looked as large as the other one and had certainly shown no signs of early labour whatsoever.

The bereaved ewe.
She took great interest in proceedings and clearly wants to be an aunt.

Onto Sunday morning. At 10:30 the paler ewe was flumped on the ground breathing very deeply. She was regularly licking her lips, getting up and turning round and pawing the straw. She was clearly going into labour.
We got the lambing kit out and read up on what to do. Timings in our literature were vague but this first stage of labour should, we reckoned, last anything between 4 and 24 hours. At the end of it, she would pass a mucus plug which would mark the start of going into labour proper, the delivery.
Up to two hours later a water bag would emerge, fairly quickly followed by, hopefully, the appearance of a nose and two front feet.
Note the timings.

From here we get down to the nitty gritty, including images. Just a warning...

By Sunday evening, not much more had happened. She was spending most of her time just standing and breathing very deeply. I stayed up till 1 in the morning, with frequent visits to the stables. I then set up camp on the sofa and set the alarm for 2:30. And for 4:00. And finally for 5:30. Still nothing. It was now 19 hours since she showed signs of first stage labour, but she still hadn't really stretched, yawned or bleated, all things which she should start to do as labour proper approached.
Sue went off to work but I decided I should swap my days and stay at home. It got to 2pm, now 28 hours since first signs, and I decided I should call our friendly farm vets for some advice. She (the ewe, not the vet) was showing no signs whatsoever of pushing and I was getting very worried. At the very least, I suspected we may be dealing with another dead lamb.
At least the ewe did not seem to be in any trouble, or tired, so it was agreed that I would just wait and see. The vets have a 24hour phone line so I could always call later in the evening.

Sue returned from work but things were still the same. It got dark. Things were still the same. I decided that I would just have to wait with her and watch. If nothing had changed by early morning, I would call out the vet, but she really did not seem to be in any great discomfort (the ewe again).

Then, at quarter past ten, 36 hours after the first signs, her water bag emerged. Before I could get a picture, she laid down and burst it. It was just like a dark red balloon hanging from her back end, about the size of a grapefruit. The bag, or another, then filled up with a watery substance and hung from her back.
I consulted the literature again, just to check, which was fairly vague but basically said that nose and feet should appear any time from now. An experienced ewe should give birth within an hour, a first timer within 2 hours. If it reached this time, "intervention" (going in to examine) should be considered.
Note the timings.

I settled down, huddled up for warmth on a straw bale. Sue napped on the straw. At half past midnight Sue went off to bed. She can not swap her work days and needed to sleep. I waited...and waited...

At 2 o'clock, almost 4 hours after the water bag had emerged, I reluctantly woke Sue and we decided we would have to call the vet again. The ewe was showing no sign of stretching or straining and a dead lamb inside her would lead to big problems for the ewe.
Katharine, who was on night duty, put our minds at rest telling us that it wasn't too unusual for things to take this long. She did advise that Sue (who has the smaller hands) roll up her sleeves and apply the lube though!
We had been on courses and practised for this. They use a dead lamb in a box and you have to feel for head, legs and feet to work out which way round it is. On the course we had been quite good at this. However, the box wasn't alive!!

I held the ewe, trying to balance being gentle with keeping her still, while Sue went in. Sue was only able to get her hand in. The cervix felt tight and hard. The results were inconclusive.
Another call to the vet and the possibility of ring womb was discussed - a condition where the cervix does not dilate, requiring a vet to intervene. We decided to give it another 2 hours before calling the vet back. Sue went back to bed and I settled in for a long night. It was cold. The sky was clear.

Not ten minutes later I was running up the stairs to get Sue out of bed. I don't know if it was her intervention which prompted action, but a hoof had appeared!
By the time we got to the stable, the ewe had actually started to strain for the first time. There still seemed to be just the one hoof showing and, if anything, it looked like a back hoof. It may be time for the lube again!
But then another big push by the ewe and all became clearer. It was a nose!
The rest happened quickly. The hooves. Half way out. And then out popped a tiny lamb. The umbilical cord broke. If the lamb was alive, we needed to be ready to break its bag and clear the mucus from its mouth and nostrils, as its air supply would be gone now.
Then it moved and wriggled and started breathing for itself. Mum turned round and straight away started licking her newborn lamb clean.

It tottered to its legs shakily before falling down again. Mum carried on licking it. Again it tottered to its legs and headed straight toward mum's udders before toppling into the straw. It bleated pathetically and mum answered in a much deeper voice. This continued for a while.

The anxious first time parents, Sue and I, knew that the lamb needed to suckle, ideally within 30 minutes of birth. The first milk produced by the mum is actually known as colostrum, a thick yellowish liquid which has twice as much protein as milk and importantly passes mum's antibodies on to the newborn. A lamb only has brown fat, enough to keep it warm for 2 hours. If it does not suckle by then, it will rapidly develop hypothermia and become weak.
In our time as smallholders we have learned just how very susceptible very young creatures are to becoming weak and dying. Nature is very harsh.

The baby was trying to reach mum's teats, but mum just kept moving around. For she was going back into labour with a second lamb. I wasn't surprised for she had been very fat and that first lamb was tiny. As she lay on her side straining, she was still licking the first lamb clean. Now there's a devoted mother!
The second lamb was larger. This one was black and a boy. Again, it came out the right way which was a relief to Sue and I. It was slower to move though so Sue wiped it's face with an old towel to clear the mucus away. Mum turned to lick it, but she had a balancing act now, for she was still tending to the firstborn. The second lamb slowly tottered to its feet before flumping headfirst into the straw. It didn't seem so lively as the first and was making no effort to reach mum's udders.

Meanwhile, the firstborn had found the milk! This was good news, but mum seemed to be spending more time with that one, even though the second born needed her right now. I was rubbing the second with a towel to dry it off. Mum helped, but kept returning to the first. She was besotted with it.

After 20 minutes the black lamb still had not gone anywhere near mum's udders. Every time it got underneath her, she would move or it would just nuzzle in completely the wrong place. Besides, the firstborn was already on the teat and it did not seem to know to look on the other side.

We decided to snip their umbilical cords now, so that it was done. One had snapped off quite short, but the other's was virtually dragging on the ground - a sure route for infection to enter the lamb. This operation was easily accomplished with a pair of sterilised scissors. We dipped the ends of the cords into iodine and rocked the lambs backwards so that the iodine did the job really well.
We mixed up some powdered colostrum. It doesn't contain mum's antibodies, but would at least keep the lamb nourished and alive for a while longer. We fed it from a bottle, which it accepted readily. In theory it's better to feed through a stomach tube so that liquid cannot enter the lamb's lungs, but we are not trained to do that and right now the most important thing seemed to be to get some nourishment into this vulnerable little creature.
The black lamb responded well and seemed to gain in strength. But still it could not find mum's teats. It was so tall that when it crouched under mum it did not seem to think to look up! The firstborn was showing the way, but it did not follow. Mum certainly wasn't rejecting the lamb, but she was still more preoccupied with the first. The second was going to have to show some initiative. I kept trying to put it underneath mum but it just wasn't getting the hang of it. Meanwhile every time I handled the lamb I was getting iodine all over myself.
Sue went back to bed and I stayed up.
There was still one stage of the labour to go, the passing of the placenta. If this doesn't come out it can spell trouble for the ewe. However, this stage actually went by the book. Not only that, but mum had the good grace to eat it too. If they don't, you're actually supposed to dispose of it by calling the knacker man. Ridiculous. I wonder how many people actually do. In fact all through the labour mum was very careful to get rid of any liquids or other substances which fell to the floor. I guess that in nature they would need to do this to avoid attracting predators. But it's handy for the smallholder too. It's also vital extra nutrition for the ewe.
Once the placenta was gone, I moved the trio to a mothering pen which had been carefully disinfected and had plenty of fresh straw.
By the time Sue had got up again and gone to work, both lambs were much drier and looking healthier. The black lamb had enjoyed quite a large feed and I felt safe enough to go to bed for an hour.
When I got up, both lambs were still looking healthy but the black lamb still had not found its food source. I mixed up more colostrum and it fed hungrily.
But I was concerned that mum's colostrum would be a much better alternative. Also, if it did not suckle then we would be lumbered with a lamb (however cute) to bottle feed day and night. Of course we would do it, but it wouldn't be ideal. I mean, imagine if I had to take it on a twitch!
I tried to get some milk from mum's teat to let the baby lick, but she really wasn't keen on this. But the baby seemed perked up by its latest feed. I left it alone and went to pottering in the polytunnel - always a good way to take my mind off things and a very comfortable place to be.
I returned about 40 minutes later and the black lamb was at least going through the motions of looking for milk, nuzzling underneath mum, even if it was at the front end!
I managed to reach under mum and hold her teat. With my other hand I held the lamb's mouth up to her teat. I don't know whether it thought it was the bottle or not, but eventually it latched on and started suckling. At last!

Of course, I didn't go back to sleep all day and I didn't get much work done, for I returned to the lambs every half hour or so just to check that they were still strong and healthy and feeding.

As I write, the lambs are now over a day old. They are, of course, the cutest lambs anybody has ever had. They have already had visitors and a steady stream of people are booked in for the next few days to come and admire them.
I will keep the pictures coming.

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