35 years, reflections on lambing

We are past the first week of February and generally that means if we haven’t gotten things ready in the barn for lambing yet, we’d better get going! So far, I’ve ordered ear tags, inventoried health supplies, cleaned the heat lamps, checked the bulbs and prepared the permanent stalls for early arrivals. And so we wait and watch.

Throughout December and early January Abby and I feed square bales from the southeastern corner of the barn in order to open up more space for the lamb pens. The south facing side is covered with greenhouse film, protecting the new lambs from wind, snow, ice, or rain.  This part of the barn warms up quickly on the ever-brightening winter days. As impatience rises, I start cleaning up udders and legs by shearing off the excess wool. This helps the lambs find the teat and more easily get their first drink. Soon we’ll begin our daily “udder checks” – walking behind the ewes as they eat and occasionally pulling a warm hand from a glove to feel their swelling udders, which gives us some indication of how soon a ewe will give birth.

2020 marks the 35th year of lambs being born at Apple Creek Farm. Since 1985, each Spring the flock has grown stealthily, new members coming late each night and in the early hours of the morning. My father, Pete can claim the bulk of the work for those 35 years. He and my mother, Janet have logged closer to 45 years of lambing since they acquired their first sheep. After celebrating a milestone birthday for Pete at the end of January, I thought back 35 years when we moved from Brunswick to Bowdoinham, sheep and all. I was only six and new lambs were a thing to celebrate, like a birthday. As with much of farming, it’s all about the routines and familiar seasonal rhythms- new each time yet familiar. Three and a half decades of observing ewes whose names we know without seeing their ear tag. Of looking up into frozen, starlit skies on the quiet walk to the barn to check for ewes in labor. Almost four decades of drying off lambs in the dark, moving ewes and lambs from the paddock into pens. Hands covered in blood, milk, and iodine. 35 years of life and sometimes death.

Our sheep aren’t needy. They don’t ask us for much, least of all an abundance of attention. But after a ewe has delivered a lamb or two, they let us carry their newborns to a safe, dry place to bond. They tolerate us sitting with them, waiting, helping the lambs find the udder.

The pre-lambing season involves a lot of standing around and watching. After morning chores Abby and I will lean on gates looking across the sea of wool and hay and snow. We speculate aloud about who looks ready, playfully place bets on which of us will be right. We recount the previous year and who lambed first, who was bred to which of the rams. In the evening we remark how a particular ewe is walking, whether she is gazing thoughtfully into the night sky chewing her cud or if she is laying down rather than joining the others at the feeder. During each of the nighttime checks we walk through the stillness of the night, ears perked, listening for the telltale sounds of new life. A small bleat, a nicker from a new mom, a groan from as a ewe shifts her bulk or paws in the hay as she readies her nest. Arriving at the barn we slowly ease open the gate and slide into the paddock to avoid waking the sleeping ewes.  A third are chewing their cud and another third pushed up to the feeders, still not sated.

As long as it seems we wait, with the first birth a familiar rhythm takes over.