I always enjoyed the lambing season. Over the years I became used to the sight of Mum swinging lambs by their feet, fresh out of the womb. The swinging motion encourages their first breath by forcing oxygen into their flat lungs. From a young age I’d be in charge of skimming the mucus from their mouth before Mum did the spiral swing. This action of swinging seemed brutal for something new to the world. Mum would say: ‘the most important thing is that you swing them far enough off of the ground and away from any posts to ensure you don’t whack their heads’. After this their bodies came back to the ground far longer than when they emerged crumpled from the womb only moments before.
These were the positive outcomes. Occasionally things wouldn’t go to plan, or the conditions wouldn’t be right and the ewe would lose a lot of blood and not survive. Or she’d be in shock from the trauma of the birth, this shock is common in first timers. I’ve learnt that the pressure of unconditional love exists less in the animal world. If the ewe rejected the new born it would quickly become an orphan and I became its feeder for a few weeks. I would form the bond with the orphans by feeding them out of recycled plastic drinks bottles adapted with a soft red teat.
Some years we would have multiple orphans and I would be overjoyed. Some- times, if the timing was right and an ewe had a still birth we’d act quickly and I would lose one of my lamb children.
Very quickly after the birth we’d skin the deceased babe to make a coat. Mum would do this job – it’s important to keep the skin in one piece. Taking a sharp knife and starting at the unfed stomach, she’d cut along the seam where the animal was finally joined, then gently applying pressure, she’d pull the skin up from the stomach using the knife to cut away any tissue.
We’d come away with a hide. A micro version of the hides used to make leather goods. This skin becomes a tool for adoption. If we had a young enough orphan, may- be one to three days old, the skin would become its jacket, the more sodden with placenta and mucus the better for the chance of success. We’d be hopeful that the bereaved ewe takes this newly dressed lamb as its own.
We would know if the adopting mission was a success almost immediately; a new mother will lick and nurture its offspring straight away, cleaning off its own fluids and using its muzzle to encourage the new born towards its udder. Sometimes there was a bit of trouble with the fostered lamb taking to the udder having had its synthetic counterpart nourish it for the first few days. It takes a lot of perseverance to accept the synthetic teat and equal amounts the fleshy nipple. Both forms of nourishment are equally important to have available.
As the days passed, the minute jacket that once swamped the body became tight around the armpits moulding itself into a ridged form. When the living lamb sat down, the jacket buckled up above the back leaving a gap between its downy fleece and the hard, worn, dead skin. After five to eight days encased, the hide began to crack at the edges and the slits made in the fresh skin seem much smaller than when they comfortably slipped over the tufty backward knees of the newly adopted babe.
The skin usually came off on its own accord, caught on fencing or stretched to its limits, freeing a moving body which happily bounded around. This old skin left a shadow behind of creamy wool, unseen and un- licked by the mother’s rough tongue. By this point the mother’s bond to its fostered child is so strong that the loss of the familiar skin comes as no issue, just fresh wool to nudge toward the udder.