It's official. I am in the fiber fleece business for real starting today. In a few short hours, a small flock of shetland sheep will arrive, including a ram named Bing. These new sheep, plus the two shetlands I already have, and their four babies, will mean a flock that was once a motley crew of orphans and rescues, is now mostly a fiber flock instead. I've pulled out the spinning wheel, started researching micron counts, and even purchased coats for the girls to wear come winter, so cleaning their fleeces in the spring won't be a total nightmare. (I've learned about that the hard way!) I am excited and terrified.
In honor of the big event, I am posting a story I wrote a month and a half ago, about Elsa, my first shetland. What a love. Please enjoy, and keep a look out. One of these days there will be a link to buy fleece, roving, maybe even yarn, from Elsa and her flockmates :)
It was Monday morning, and the man of the ranch was hustling to get chores done before dashing off to the sale barn, when he poked his head in. "Elsa's getting ready to lamb. I shut her in the big corral," he said.
"Bean!" I said, "Babies!" The Bean smiled through his mashed sweet potatoes and toast. Like his father, the Bean is a man of few words, but I knew he was excited because lamb watching is one of our favorite activities. I was especially thrilled because Elsa is one of the two shetland sheep we bought last fall -- my dream sheep. They are both short and black, with skinny stick legs, and an abundance of soft, fluffy wool. Whereas Fifi, the smaller of the two, is not very friendly (if she sees you approaching, she will stomp her foot and snort. And that's if you have grain. If you don't, she just runs away) Elsa is mild and gentle, with large amber and chocolate flecked eyes. She loves to have her nose scratched, and even wears a sheepy grin when she gets pet.
The Bean and I finished our breakfast as quick as we could, put on sweaters and caps, and headed out to check on our good girl. Sure enough, there she was, laying down in the big corral, a faraway look in her eye. Definitely in labor. We watched for a while, but kept our distance, to give her a little privacy, then, as it seemed things weren't progressing, went back to the house for nap time. "I bet there will be babies when you wake up!" I told the Bean.
But I was wrong. After lunch I went to check again and she was still laying in the same spot, radiating calm, seeming not to have a care in the world, but I was worried. Thankfully one of our closest neighbors is as experienced a sheep herder as they come, and not more than five minutes after I made the call, he was pulling up the driveway with another neighbor (also a shepherd) beside him.
"Sorry girl," They told poor Elsa, as they shuffled her around, trying to assess her condition. "Well," my neighbor said, "she is not in labor, but she is in a world of hurt." Elsa, for her part, stayed on the ground, not struggling, or really moving much at all. "It's probably pregnancy disease," my neighbors agreed. Also called 'pregnancy toxemia,' I'd written an article about the condition for an agriculture newspaper last spring, so I knew what they were too kind to say: if you catch it early enough, there is a slim chance of reversing the trajectory of the illness, but once a ewe goes down, there isn't much hope she will recover. "We can try drenching her with molasses and warm water…" my neighbor offered, "And If she is still alive in the morning, I'll come back and do it again." None of us really thought that was going to be necessary.
Through the afternoon and evening I kept checking on her, then I stayed up too late reading articles on the internet, all of which told me in most cases this diagnosis was a one-way street. I went to bed, but didn't sleep much, already assuming we'd have one less member of the flock come morning.
But I was wrong again. "Well, she is still alive," the man of the ranch said when he came in from chores (I hadn't been brave enough to check myself.) Our neighbor came back, and we drenched her again, but this time she fought it, even standing up for a second. Snow was in the forecast, so the man of the ranch got her in the barn, and he put Fifi in as well, since they both were due to lamb soon anyway. Elsa's breathing was labored, and she laid down as soon as she got in the barn, but her eyes were more alert. They followed my movements as I approached to pet her ears. "Hang in there, Elsa" I whispered.
Now, in my extensive internet searching, the consensus seemed to be that getting the babies out of the ewe was the only chance for her survival, as it was the lambs drawing nutrition away from the mother that caused the condition. We called our vet, who agreed it was worth a shot (literally and figuratively, as two shots of steroids were what we would use to put her into early labor) and the Bean and I drove to pick up the medicine, along with something called propylene glycol, which supposedly would do the same job as molasses only better. We gave her the shots just before supper time, and went back to the house hoping for the best.
I trudged to the barn every two hours that first night. Snow had begun to fall, and my boots left sloppy mud holes in the soft whiteness. Each time I entered the barn I'd brace myself to find Elsa's body, still and cold. Each time I was greeted instead with her harsh pant and sweet eyes.
We watched and waited all the next day as well. She didn't get worse, but she didn't get better, and I was dreading another night of checking. I couldn't believe she'd held on as long as she had. I was more certain than ever I would find her dead, and now I was also certain I would find the bodies of her babies as well. As sick as she was, how could they be born alive? The snow continued to fall -- more than a foot of it -- and each time I crossed the yard to check on her, my boots filled with the wet handfuls that flopped over the rims. As the day progressed the wind picked up, blowing the snow sideways, into my squinting eyes, and under the earflaps of my knit cap. I would return to the house cold, wet, and weary, with nothing new to report. That night, I lay awake waiting for the first dreaded trip to the barn, too tired to sleep, cursing myself for ever getting into the sheep business, wishing whatever was going to happen just happened, one way or the other.
As you can imagine, dear reader, I was well past my breaking point, but the next morning, Elsa was, against all odds, better. She actually stood up on her own and even tried to nibble a few strands of hay. For the first time in three days I let myself feel a little hopeful. But I was also so used to checking and finding nothing, that I think I'd forgotten what I was actually checking for. Which is why, when I went out to the barn before the baby's nap, I was absolutely astounded to find Elsa standing beside a tiny, white lamb, it's wee curls still wet with afterbirth.
I am not sure what I did. There was probably some quiet dance moves and silent shouts of joy, but I tried to remain relatively calm, as Elsa still wasn't out of the woods. She was licking her lamb vigorously and making soft, low new mother sounds, looking for all the world like a happy, healthy ewe; but, I was pretty sure she had a least one more baby to deliver. For once I was right. WIthin a few minutes she started to groan and fidget, her first born momentarily forgotten.
Between contractions, she would stop and nozzle the first baby, until finally she flopped down, the second baby taking her full attention. After each big push and I could see the tiny black tip of a hoof appear, but then, when exhausted Elsa took a breath, the hoof would disappeared. Finally, after one big contraction, the hoof reappeared, as did the small slip of a little black nose. I knew this wasn't right -- there should be two hooves before there was a nose. Elsa stood up and groaned loudly, pushing with all her might, while I watched, shivering with panic. I ran to the door of the barn. The man of the ranch was back at the house with the Bean, and at just that moment he stuck his head out the side door, worried because I'd been gone so long.
"Elsa had a baby, but now the second one is stuck!" I shouted across the yard.
"What?" he shouted back.
"THE BABY IS STUCK!!" I shouted again.
"PULL IT!" he shouted back.
So, I did.
When the man of the ranch arrived at the barn with the Bean, both of their coats half on, their winter hats slightly askew, there were two lambs being licked clean by their mother -- one white as snow, the other black as the blackest night, and me, crying and shaking from gratitude and wonder.
That was a week and a half ago. Today it is Mother's Day, the snow is long gone, and in its place the greenest grass you can imagine, already ankle high and waving in the breeze. Fifi has since had her babies, also twins, also one black and one white. We've kept everyone in longer than usual, because the Bean and I have continued to check on them several times a day, though now it is snuggle the babies, and sneak the mamas handfuls of cracked corn. Honestly, I still can't believe it. Just like I still can't believe that at 38 years old, I am celebrating my first mother's day as a mother -- something I hoped and prayed for, but feared would never happen. I watch four wobbly lambs hop and jostle each other joyfully, as my own baby shakes his head and laughs -- a reminder that every moment is full of little miracles, and treasures too precious to count.