I would be really pleased to have a lambing season start off real boring-like. But it seems like odds are against that. The week leading up to lambing I’m on pins and needles. If a ewe’s fetuses have died, this seems to be the week her body decides to hit the eject button. And so was the case with #10. She was expected to lamb somewhere around Saturday. On Monday morning she had separated from the other sheep and appeared to be going into labor. That was day 141, so on the early side of gestation, but not impossible.

When I saw some placenta hanging out, this concerned me, as usually it comes out after the lamb, not before. It hints that the lamb is stuck, and contractions are pushing out the other material around it. I checked the lamb’s position and it appeared to be oriented correctly. But its hair came off in my hands, usually a sign that the fetus is dead and has started to disintegrate. And the fluids had the telltale hideous smell of something not alive. Great.

She wasn’t dilated adequately, so I gave her a calcium injection and gave it more time; frequently checking her and working on her a little bit. She wasn’t in distress; it seemed like her labor was half-hearted. By the afternoon, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer, I had to go after that lamb in earnest and get it out of there. It was presenting normally, but its head wanted to nod downward as it came through the pelvis, jamming the way.

Pulling a dead lamb makes you appreciate how much live lambs help out when you’re trying to extract them. I have been suffering from tendonitis the last few months, so after more than an hour of working on the lamb, my arms and hands were killing me. But once all this starts, you have to keep going,  urgently. The only other option is caesarean, or shoot the ewe and cut the lambs out. It’s not pretty.

I started calling around to the few vets close by. #10 is one of my best ewes, and I figured there was a chance that one or two live lambs might be behind the dead one. So I was willing to spend some bucks trying to salvage the situation. The two vets I know the best were out of town. I called the big clinic. They really don’t want to work on sheep, it seems they are quick to quote you a price that they know you’ll be forced to decline. But they gave me a number for a newer farm call vet in the area; a woman I hadn’t heard of before.

She was able to come out a few hours later. In the meantime, I kept working on the lamb. By the time she got here, I was pretty certain we could get it out, especially with a fresh pair of strong arms- I had definitely achieved full dilation, and had maneuvered the lamb into a good position. But I was getting exhausted and was so glad to have backup. I have two different lamb pulling snares, and tried both, but was unsuccessful getting either one around the head. She had a different design, I think a better one-this one from Jeffer’s (which I’m going to now buy!).

I held the ewe in a standing position, which makes it easier for the other person to work on the lambs. (By myself, the ewe was mostly laying down, which meant I had to lay down, so was struggling in a lot of awkward positions.) The vet got the lamb head snared, and then we both started to pull. I pulled on the legs with both hands, she pulled on the head with both hands. With all our might. I’m not kidding. We both swore a lot, and had to take frequent breaks to do a little deep breathing. It is so frustrating and physically challenging. These long labors lose all the lubricating fluids that help a lamb slide out. And dead lambs are bloated and soft, so they just hang up.

But, we finally got the sucker out. We quickly pulled the lamb behind it, but it was also dead. The vet pointed out that the opaque eyes indicate the lamb has been dead for at least a day. So, it’s small reassurance that there was nothing we could have done. I vaccinate for vibrio and chlamydia; but there are other possibilities- toxoplasmosis, listeria, leptospirosis; maybe even a toxic weed.

The ewe was a bit shock-ey, but we blanketed her with a heating pad on her back, gave her a pile of drugs, flushed her uterus with lactated ringers, and force-fed her molasses and Nutridrench for energy. She hung in there through Tuesday, but wasn’t eating; a total “prognosis guarded” scenario. Wednesday morning, she seemed in distress. I continued to give her all available drugs to help her get through this.

Wednesday afternoon,  my husband sent me a terse text “sheep dead. Do you want me to dig a hole?” Shoot. The vet said if it were hemorrhage, the ewe would have died much sooner. She felt it was toxicity; that once the birth is over, the body starts to collect and absorb all of the fluids in the uterus. If they are full of bacteria and toxins, they get pulled right in; and the body goes septic.

Since I am in the Scrapie Flock Certification Program, I’m required to submit the heads of all adult ewes here which die or are slaughtered to a lab for testing. So, that was the last step, unceremoniously severing her head and packing it into a cooler to be FedEx’ed overnight to Indiana. I didn’t bother to do a necropsy, I figured it wouldn’t reveal any news. I did wonder if there was another lamb in there that we missed; but if so, it’s water under the bridge now.

It is always terribly disappointing to lose an animal, let alone three, and a really good ewe to boot. But those are the tough realities of animal husbandry and the ungentle ways of Mother Nature. I feel we did everything we could, and did everything right, and on time . One positive thing was finding a new farm call vet, and one who is great to work with, knows about sheep, and doesn’t charge horrendous fees. It makes a big difference just having someone there to help; both physically, as well as a second brain to think  and talk through the problem. She made a hard day easier. I will definitely call her again!

In other, more pleasant news, three lambs are on the ground so far. The boring kind that I prefer, where I just walk outside and find dry, stomach-full, scampering lambs being responsibly shepherded by their mothers. It’s sixty degrees and maybe close to seventy tomorrow- perfect lambing weather!