Only the Strong Survive
The bed was shaking back and forth. I groggily opened my eyes, wondering what time it could be.
Actually, the entire trailer was swaying from side to side. I could hear the wind swirling and howling outside, as though daring those hibernating to come out of hiding.
I poked my head out of my sleeping bag and felt a cold draft sweep in from the window above me.
Retreating back into the covers, I felt around the bed for my phone. Opening one eye, I peered at the screen. 4 am. I groaned inwardly as the trailer swayed some more.
It was first snowfall in late November and it had hit suddenly after two days of warm, sunny afternoons. Not only was the snow falling, but it was blowing furiously sideways.
As everything around me shook, I was reminded that out here, Mother Nature was boss. The rest of us had to learn to live under her rules if we wanted to persevere in farming life.
I managed to drift back to sleep. When I woke again, the snowstorm was still raging on. I sighed, then reluctantly got out of bed to let the birds out of their house, although I was convinced they wouldn’t even want to venture out into the New Arctic.
But lo and behold, our feathered friends puttered on outside and began their day as per usual.
My day went on as per usual too. I was still in my first week living at the farm, but slowly settling into a routine with farm animal work.
After feeding the birds, as well as our sheep dogs Olive and Clyde, and putting away some firewood and cardboard, I retreated back into the trailer for an afternoon break.
Not too long after, Antonio rushed in.
“Get ready!” he said. “We got two new lambs. One is being born right now!”
I immediately threw on my snow pants and jacket, and rushed out into the snowscape. It was the first time I’d be helping with a lamb birth – or births, in this case – and I had no idea what to expect.
When I arrived on the scene, Antonio was standing in the middle of the barn, holding two small lambs, one in each arm.
I was mesmerized by how tiny and quiet they were. My first instinct was to pull out my camera phone to capture the moment, but I snapped back to reality when Antonio thrust the lambs toward me and said: “Here, hold them.”
He was trying to persuade their mother to follow us out to the adjacent barn where the other recently-born lambs and their moms were being housed. The only problem was that the new mom wasn’t having any of it.
I gently scooped up the babies, one in each hand. They felt so small and light, and I smiled down at the two beautiful, furry creatures that were now cradled in my arms.
Antonio finally got a hold of the mother ewe, and I took my cue to start the move. I ran out, shielding the lambs as they baa-ed away at the gusting snow.
“We’re going to your new home,” I reassured them amidst their pleas.
Once everyone was safely inside the other barn, we paused for a breath and watched from a distance as the ewe hovered hesitantly over her newborns. She was a first-time mother and unsure of what to do with these two strange, little creatures by her feet.
One – a light brown and white lamb – was already standing up, while the other – a smaller, dark brown and white lamb – was still lying in the hay.
“We’ll give them some time to do their thing,” Antonio said.
“Okay, I replied, somewhat reluctant to leave. I stood there for a couple more minutes, gazing intently at the darker lamb as though I could will some strength into its legs.
“Come on, get up,” I said aloud softly.
It remained unmoving, while its twin energetically but awkwardly took a few steps.
As I closed the barn door behind me, I stole one more glance at the family portrait that had materialized amidst the hay, and hoped that they would pull through together.
Survive or Die Trying
Farm life gives you an inside perspective on life and death, one that I had never known before working with sheep.
Over the next few months, I would not only witness the births of many lambs — one of the most awe-inspiring experiences you could have on the farm or elsewhere — but also help in the process of making sure that they were successful ones.
Sometimes I’d know a birth was imminent when a pregnant ewe would plop down in the hay and begin having contractions. But other times, there would be no advance warning.
I might be going about my work in the barn, then hear that telltale sign — a tiny baa — ring out for attention. Then, I’d turn around and see before me a little lamb standing there, taking in its brand new world of hay and sheep (and a donkey).
Establishing a bond between the mother and baby soon after birth is crucial. While we ultimately want to move the pair to the “maternity ward” section of the barn to separate them from the rest of the herd, giving the mom time to lick her newborn soon after birth to seal that bond is imperative.
Seeing a lamb birth proceed like clockwork is both gratifying and reassuring. A “good” mother — especially one giving birth for a second or third time — makes it seem effortless.
In those cases, I couldn’t help but feel proud of the ewe for staying calm, immediately bonding with her newborn, and nourishing it with milk and affection.
But with all the joys of new lamb births, I also came to learn all the things that could go wrong.
While those tiny lambs grow quickly into large, strong sheep who could easily take you down in a shoving match (especially when their food is at stake), their first few days of life seem like a perilous race against the clock.
Lambs are known to have a high mortality rate — statistics range, but between 10 to 30 percent of them will not survive. Hypothermia is a prime cause, but other reasons include difficult births, ewe diseases, predators such as coyotes, and — oftentimes the saddest situation — rejection from the lamb’s mother.
Sometimes poor feeding is the culprit. The lamb may not develop the basic instinct to suckle, as was the case with the small, dark brown-and-white lamb that had recently been born during the snowstorm.
This was a dangerous situation, as lambs require colostrum — its only natural source of antibodies — from its mother within the first few hours after birth. After 24 hours, the ewe stops producing this special milk.
If the lamb hasn’t received adequate colostrum in time, its body temperature begins to fall, and the combination of hypothermia and dehydration can leave it too weak to nurse.
But no matter how hard we tried to convince the new lamb to feed from its mom, it wouldn’t. Even when we placed her nipple directly in its mouth, it frustratingly wouldn’t take. We had to resort to Plan B, giving it lamb milk replacement via a feeding tube so that the life-sustaining liquid could enter its belly.
To be honest though, after enduring a few of these scenarios, I found that if the lamb hadn’t caught on to its natural behaviours of survival shortly after birth, holding onto hope seemed in vain. The lamb that wouldn’t feed died a couple of days later.
Watching a lamb give its last breaths is never an easy experience. But I had also come to accept that after attempting all that we could do to give our newborns the best chance at life, the rest had to be left up to them and their mothers.
It felt as though I was now understanding the term “survival of the fittest” in a deeper way than I ever had from just descriptions in a textbook.
And part of me agreed that out here, on the farm, only the strong could make it through the harsh, unforgiving days of winter. Only the strong could persevere when they had no choice but to stand on their own.
Our Gains,Our Losses
The first time I cried over the death of a lamb, I was two and a half months into my farm life journey, and our flock of sheep had grown exponentially.
A new pregnancy had been happening almost daily, and I now made sure to pop my head into the barn before starting my morning work to check if any new lambs had been delivered.
Indeed, one morning, I peeked into the barn and spotted an ewe licking two fresh lambs. Their fur was still glistening as they took their first timid steps.
Once I had moved the trio to a maternity pen, I took a breather, leaning against the pen. When I turned back around, I noticed that the ewe was ejecting the placenta. Or at least I thought it was the placenta.
Upon closer inspection, I realized that what was coming out of her was the head of her third child. Slowly, the baby, encased in a layer of membrane and mucous, slid out onto the hay. It lay there, unmoving.
The mother hovered over the lamb’s body for a couple of seconds, then turned away. Perhaps she already knew that there was no point in expending her energy on her stillborn child.
It was the first time I had witnessed the actual birth of a lamb, and it was heartbreaking to also witness my first stillborn in the same instance.
At least she still has these two, I thought, gazing at the two little lambs walking around beside her, tails wagging happily.
The next day, I walked into the barn and stopped dead in my tracks. Clyde was sitting calmly in the hay, a small, brown lamb lying in front of him.
Confused, I looked down at the lamb. Antonio had said recently that another sheep was going to give birth soon. Was this it? But why was Clyde with it?
The sheep around me were unusually silent, as though they knew something strange was going on. I peered closer at the unmoving lamb and an uneasy feeling grew in the pit of my stomach that soon turned to horror.
The lamb’s belly was torn open, its white insides exposed.
“Oh no,” I cried. “No! Clyde, what did you do?!”
Clyde didn’t move, continuing to calmly preside over the dead lamb.
I felt my rage boil over at his seeming nonchalance, and I grabbed him by the collar. He jerked back, not wanting to leave.
“Get out, now!” I growled at him, yanking hard. I dragged him towards the exit and thrust him out of the barn, then quickly ran back inside.
I stared down at the brown lamb, gripped by a wave of grief. I had come to the realization that this was one of the triplets just born the day before. It must have found its way out of the maternity pen and for some inexplainable reason, Clyde, whose very job was to protect our sheep, had ended its life.
“Dammit!” I yelled out loud.
The sheep were silent all around.
“I’m so sorry,” I said somberly aloud. I didn’t know exactly who I was apologizing to – the lamb, its mom, the whole herd – but I couldn’t stop repeating myself. “I’m so, so sorry.”
Exhaling slowly, I grabbed a cardboard box lying nearby and came back to the lamb. As I lifted his limp body from the ground, I could feel his fur still soft and his body still warm. He was small but seemed to have already grown so much within the one day of his life.
I placed him inside the box and stood up. It was then that I noticed the lamb’s mom had somehow gotten out of her pen. She had been running around baaing all this time, but in my state of anguish I hadn’t even heard her.
Her remaining child was crying out to her in the pen. The ewe, panicking, frantically ran into the neighbouring pen, where she stood staring down at her lamb, baaing right back at it. I eventually guided her back into her own pen, and the pair fell silent at their reunion.
I breathed a sigh of relief, then turned back to the cardboard box. As I carried it away from the barn, I passed the adjacent hay shed. I could see Clyde hiding inside amidst the bales.
I exploded, my anger and despair colliding. “Clyde!” I yelled. “Look what you did!”
Clyde looked away, ducking his head behind some hay. Olive, sitting nearby, got up and followed me silently as I continued walking down the woodchip path, solemnly carrying the cardboard box.
My tears finally broke and streamed down my face. I sobbed for the little lamb, and I sobbed for his mother who was now left with one.
I didn’t care anymore about being strong. I thought I could remain unfazed by the lambs that fell to their early deaths by accepting that they weren’t meant to be out here, that they just weren’t made strong enough to handle the hard world they were born into.
But although we may ultimately need to accept death as a normal part of life, it’s also okay to grieve our losses – whether a lamb or human – and not necessarily understand or accept it in the moment.
Over my time at the farm, I had come to see the lambs and sheep as part of the farm family – my family. They helped us by managing the land, and we took care of them by providing food, water, and shelter.
They were no longer just the noisy, hungry herd I had been introduced to, but individual beings I had come to recognize with their own unique personalities and quirks. They were friends who I spoke, and even sang, to while going about my work in the barn. When they gained new life, I gained as well. When they hurt or failed, that hurt and failure was also mine to bear.
The day after Clyde killed the lamb, it was business as usual. Farm life needed to continue and other lives needed to be taken care of. We learn from our losses, and put those lessons toward doing better for the ones we still have.
Although only the strong will survive out here, we persevere together in unity with and reverence for Mother Nature, so that we can help each other gain the strength needed to thrive in this thing called farm life.