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Lambs Arrive

We’ve been preparing for lambs over the last few days. Ever-rounder ewes have warned us that it’s time to plan.

These are some of our most ostentatiously pregnant ewes:

We started by placing our order from Premier 1 Supplies. We bought fresh new bottles and nipples for the inevitable bottle lambs, smore syringes and needles, and a can of colostrum replacer. We like to have colostrum replacer on hand to “stretch” colostrum when needed. We’ll mix it with a bit of colostrum borrowed from another ewe. I organized our existing lambing supplies and ordered more ear tags. Lots of small things to think of and loose ends to tie off.

Preparing our supplies is one matter, but preparing mentally is another. I am a huge fan of Lambing Live, a show that used to run annually on the BBC. Episodes are available on YouTube. Even though some are missing or out of order, it’s still a valuable watch if you want to get psyched for several weeks of sleepless stress. Truly, watch this series a bit if you find sheep even remotely interesting.



What is the stress of lambing? It’s not an excess of physical work. We have our farm pretty streamlined from that angle. It’s not even a complete lack of sleep. We have barn cameras to help us monitor the barn without having to get up and clothe ourselves every time. It’s really the stress of responsibility. It’s the stress of constant decisionmaking that could result in the death of a lamb whose issues we might fail to recognize, or excessive intervention where patience is needed. Making these calls constantly tires me, and tracking every detail wears on my mind.

Two days ago, I took a walk up Creek Rd and played “stick” with my pal Nugget, the Border Collie. I told her that it might be the last walk for a while, as we were expecting lambs any time. She cocked her head in a BC manner, not understanding that it may be farewell for a short while.

How precient were my words, because this morning we were blessed with two little black Border Leicester lambs. I had a notion to check the barn cam as I lay in bed at 7, and there they were. Matt reviewed the video on the barn cams. The birth was concealed by a hay feeder, but the moment of birth is perfectly apparent when the loud cry of a lamb alerted and alarmed every ewe in the barn. Ears and heads all turned the sharp, high little baas. Oxytocin is flowing already, and we’ve only just begun.


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Sheep Behaving Badly

I have some entertaining pictures of recent sheep activity. After 45 days in the barn, the ewes express their restlessness with weird stunts.

Activity #1 – Fighting

BFL 129 Amelia and Border Leicester 1736 go head to head, with our resident ram lamb goading them on. Sheep flocks have a hierarchy, and apparently these girls do not agree about where they stand in the pecking order.

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A solid flank shot by Amelia. Luckily, ewes don’t fight to the point of injury, like rams do. These two went back to munching hay and gossiping about each other soon after.

I have to admit that I was laughing the whole time. I am sure this felt very serious to the contenders, but watching chubby, fluffy ewes do battle would amuse anyone. I wonder if this could be a pay per view channel?

And then this happened:

Perhaps you recall a story from last spring, where one of our ewes had quadruplets? The runt died and we gave the ram lamb away to be raised by a friend, but we kept two promising ewes from the set. When a young lady contacted me to ask about keeping some bottle lambs over the summer, I consented. She had tutelage from an experienced shepherd, and handing off some problem children was just what I needed at the time, so I gave her one of the quad girls and another bottle baby. This lamb, #174, came home in the fall. She just loves people, and last week decided that perhaps people would make entertaining climbing walls, too.

So here she is, standing on my thighs and peering me straight in the eye. We will gently train her not to do this, as it’s going to get exponentially less-cute the larger she grows. I love this pretty ewe, but it is not safe to have attack-sheep on premises.

The days here are alternating between grimdark gray and sunny and white. It is a beautiful but bleak season. With the sheep stable and some time to think, I am finally catching up on paperwork and hobbies. I really value this bonding time with the core flock. The ewes are all feeling friendly and loving, so I am bombarded with shoulder-itching requests and loving nudges from my friendly ewes during this time. At other times of the year, the ewes are either preoccupied with parenting or feeling free and feral in the fields. So I gather the sheep petting endorphins when I can while we wait for the coming of lambs in late February.

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Snow Too Soon

I’ll be the first to admit that we put off fixing the barn for too long. Though we have a wide-ranging array of skills, neither Matt nor I are woodworkers. Wood is a tricky medium – it warps, shrinks, grows and splits. Matt prefers metal, plastic and electronics, and I prefer spreadsheets and graphics.

So the barn went unmended for months as we pondered an approach. Finally, we decided it was time to cough up for outside help. On Saturday, exactly a year after the back of the barn tore in half, friends helped us replace the back and front panels of the barn. Our friend will be back to work on adding some wooden framing to solidify the canvas and reduce flapping, which should extend the life of the front and back panels. But since he is doing this after work, we’ll have to wait a few more days for the barn to be finished.

So an unfinished work-zone barn is the context we had when we saw the weather report calling for snow. A bit of snow at this time of year is commonplace, but when we woke up this morning, it was clear we’d had a proper snowstorm. Strong winds were blowing the falling snow across the landscape and our house was buffetted by whiteout gusts.

Sheep will graze through a good amount of snow, but we don’t want them to struggle to find sustenance under difficult conditions. My first action was to move all three groups to areas with sheltering trees. What a slog – the wind was whipping past, making the fence tough to manage. I struggled to keep my hands warm and the snow was just deep enough to impede my stride. But at last, both the Border Leicesters and the Bluefaced Leicesters had trees to block the prevailing winds.

Then, we opened a bale of hay and transported it to the Borders pasture. We rolled about 1/3 of the bale out and warched the ewes go wild for it. As much as sheep love fresh grass, hay is a desirable “convenience food” when the grass is buried. Soon, all were munching contentedly. We picked up the remaining bale and brought it to the Blues, who dug in with gusto just as their Border friends did. Finally, we went to see the lambs, who are in a far flung field protected from the worst of the winds. The lambs came gamboling down to see us and dug right into the core of the bale.

We have another day of freezing weather and hay feeding before temperatures transition back into the 60s. Hopefully, the barn will be finished soon and the sheep will go into their shelter for the winter months.

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Running of the Rams

I felt grateful for a morning full of sunshine this morning. We’re well past our first frost and we know that snow is right around the corner, so it wasn’t surprising to step out to 35F temperatures and a crisp wind.

I usually get started by filling the water tank in the bucket of the tractor. We recently replaced our old Ford with a New Holland that’s 20 years newer. The Ford had a bumpy ride that irritates my internal scar tissue from past surgeries, so upgrading has really helped my health.

Aboard the tractor, I headed up to check on the BFLs who are in a breeding group pasture on our neighbor’s property. I spot two cyclists who are looking at me, then I see one of our off-duty rams running loose. That’s bad. Very bad. Our off-duty rams are in a horse pasture, and truthfully, they are not far enough from the BFL breeding group. We just didn’t have other options. So when I saw the off-duty ram heading for the ewes, ready to challenge the on-duty ram, I immediately worried that we would have a real ram-fight.

Fortunately, the electric fence succeeded in keeping the rams apart, so I contacted the cyclists. They told me that when they rode by, their cycles spooked the rams, causing Hermie the BFL ram to bust through the fence. They had been trying to keep Sam the Border Leicester ram inbounds while hoping that assistance would arrive. I’m so grateful that they stopped to help instead of leaving the situation.

I had some grain on hand to feed the ewes, so I tried to lure Hermie away from the girls. All amped up and nervous, he spooked at the grain bag sound instead of coming toward me. It was then that I noticed a large gash on his nose from challenging the fence. Poor Hermie! With grain-shaking getting me nowhere, I feed the BFL breeding group. That resulted in them ignoring Hermie, who responded by paying more attention to me. One cyclist returned with a bucket, and I was able to contact Matt for further backup.

It took slow, patient grain-luring to get Hermie back into his field. We were hoping to halter him, but he kept spooking and running in circles, so we concluded that our best hope was to feed out a little more grain in the field and to spray a sanitizing treatment on his wound there. Fortunately, we succeeded with that plan. Hermie now has a bold silver Aluspray blaze, and the fence has some new green stakes supporting the area where the the breakout took place.

It has been a long fall season for me. I haven’t kept up with the blog because I’ve been trying so hard to be nimble with Cloverworks yarn sales opportunities and busy with Bobolink Yarns efforts. It genuinely has been a hard year – I had hoped that this would be our breakout Rhinebeck year. We’ve learned that our yarn sells really well when people can touch it, but that we can’t rely on online sales as a substitute for in-person sales opportunities. That’s a tough realization, for certain.

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Responding To A World Without Festivals

Recently, I wrote about our anxiety about the cancellation of VT Sheep and Wool Festival and Rhinebeck. I’m glad the festivals were cancelled – we simply cannot risk joining each other in crowds during a pandemic.

We’ve spent several weeks reimagining our sales efforts. We can’t rely on folks to come find our yarn, touch it and fall in love, so we need to focus on visuals to really bring the yarn to you. Here’s what we’ve come up with:

For our Derby Line Border Leicester, we went searching for a flattering pattern that’s just right for all of the extra knitting time many of us have working at home. Dozens of patterns later, I fell in love with Meadow Moon from Jennifer Steingass. It’s a simple, modern sweater design that flatters a lot of shapes and sizes. The pattern is highly-rated and clearly written. The pattern is on sale at the moment so now is a great time to nab this cute pattern. You have the whole summer to knit this sweater that will be your go-to sweater all Fall.

With a pattern in mind, I chose my colorways carefully. I would need dark, rich semi-neutrals that would look good in a large colorblock and contrasting light colors to contrast. Of course, you could always choose a light sweater color with a dark contrast, too!

We’ve also created some fun variegated colorways – there’s no rhyme or reason, just ideas that I had and carried out:

For the BFL, I focused on colors for our favorite shawl, the Vermont Maple Shawl from Melissa Beyer, aka KnittyMelissa. This shawl is grand and simply gorgeous. Our soft and drapey BFL yarn compliments the flow of the garment perfectly.

We have several yarns and sets that would be amazing options for this gorgeous shawl.

And if these patterns aren’t your jam, there are still thousands of gorgeous ideas on Ravelry. I always love seeing what folks make from our sheep flock’s hard work!

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Bottle Lamb Shenanigans

This is a Covid-19-free post, so read and enjoy!

We have a whole passel of bottle lambs in 2020. We have the two remaining ewe lambs from the quadruplet situation. We have a BFL ram lamb who never caught on to nursing his mother. We have a Border ram lamb who was rejected due to having sharp teeth (we fixed the teeth but couldn’t repair the relationship. Then, we have triplet BFLs whose mother just can’t keep up with their needs.

Almost all bottle lambs start out in the house. Because we can’t feed them as frequently as a real sheep mom, we choose to keep them indoors where they will be warm enough to not suffer chilling and hypothermia. Hypothermia causes most needless deaths of young lambs – lambs who are too cold won’t nurse or digest milk, resulting in a downward metabolic spiral. We try to give the lambs motherly attentions that they would receive from a real mom – ewes don’t hold their lambs, but they mutter to them and nuzzle and groom them. Petting and stroking the lambs meets their need for attention.

This guy likes sleeping among the woollens. Of course, where he sleeps is also where he relieves himself, so I’ve been cleaning up ever since!


Of course, bottle lambs in the house are adorable. We show you the cute pictures of a lamb snoozing in a corner, but we don’t show you the mess they make. Lambs do not potty-train, so we do upwards of two large laundry loads of towels each day just trying to prevent indoor lambs from destroying our floors and furniture. Diapers aren’t really in the lamb’s best interest as we don’t want to leave manure in contact with their wool for any length of time. Finally, scampering lambs need space which is best found outdoors in the barn. They need playmates and guidance from ewes, too, so they learn to be good flockmembers and not frustrated wannabe-humans.

We gradually introduce houselambs to life outdoors by sending them out to the barn for short periods and then not bringing them back into the house eventually. We then must train these lambs to use the nursing bucket instead of the bottle. We use a Pritchard teat initially to facilitate nursing initially to facilitate nursing. Once the lambs are larger, however, they are too strong for small rubber teats. At that point, teat-bucket feeding becomes more practical.

The bucket is a competitive space, but we work to ensure that all lambs get the milk they need without overfeeding the aggressive ones.

We have set up a lamb creep as well. A creep is an area of the barn only accessible to lambs through a gate that admits only small sheep. In the creep, we offer grain, nice hay to nibble on and a sunny, dry floor. It takes the lambs a few days to discover the space, but once they do they really take to having a clubhouse just for them. We do feed some grain at this stage to help out the many triplets we have. Not all ewes can provide enough milk for fast-growing triplets, so this is our most practical option to grow them out effectively without overtaxing Mom.

So that’s the news from the lamb barn. We have 71 lambs bouncing about and only a few more ewes expecting. We are tired but finally beginning to catch up on sleep.

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Shearing 2020

Shearing!

We had the sheep shorn today. Though it feels early in the year, we know we need to have the sheep shorn before lambs are due. The forecasts calls for continuing mild weather, so we aren’t concerned about cold or wind for now. The ewes were eager to itch all of the itchy places they couldn’t reach beneath their fleece. We watched each of them craning their necks around to reach that One Spot and then shaking in relief.

Mary Lake at CanDoShearing shears our sheep. Mary and I have parallel sheep journeys. We were housemates back in 2012 and 2013. She had just finished an internship on a sheep farm when I was in the middle of my goat-milking years. We were both struggling doing hard jobs under challenging circumstances. Mary has always been helpful and deeply honest about my sheepraising, so it felt wonderful to be able to show her a flock of healthy, chubby ewes with great wool. I am endlessly grateful to Mary’s patience and wisdom through all of these years.

Enjoy these naked ladies prancing around on our farm! We were thrilled to see how plump and ready for lambs our flock is. 51 sheep shorn today – the only ones still wearing wool are the Two Old Ladies – we think they’ll do better with a bit more wool on.

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Winter Chores

We have arrived successfully at the quietest time of year.  The ewes are eating and gestating, quietly growing and waiting.  The rams have calmed down and decided to get along again.IMG_20191226_105829

Every morning, I put on my coat, hat and gloves and head to the barn.  The ewes are eager to see me.  They have picked at the caged round bales all night and need me to remove some of the wasted stems so they can get to the good stuff again.  We have three feeders so that everyone can have a fair shake at eating without waiting for more dominant ewes to fill up.  With three 600 lb bales in the barn at a time, we don’t even have to feed the sheep daily.

Sometimes, Louise the Kitty decides to explore the barn.  In the summer, it’s one of her favorite places to hang out because there is shade but no sheep.  Though I have seen many photos of cats and sheep cohabitating happily, my cats and my sheep are more adversarial.  Louise attracts sheep attention and gets assaulted by noses within moments of arriving.  I had to rescue her, much to her chagrin because she hates being picked up and carried.  I bet she would hate being sniffled to death more.

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In sunny weather, the ewes use their loafing area to sunbathe and to scheme about how to bust the fencing apart so they can go eat fallen apples.  They were out under the apple tree when we came home from our Christmas visit to my sister and her family.  It’s embarrassing to admit that we are somewhat losing this intellectual arms-race with the sheep.  If the land beneath the loafing area were permiable, we would put in some posts and be done with it.  Since the land is quite hard and compacted, we have to make some alternate plans.  The ewes know that the green alpaca panels can be rubbed until one lifts out of the linkage with the other.  We solved that temporarily by pinning the linkages together, but the ewes have found that they can reorient the fencing and defeat the pins.  Frustrating.

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Pregnancy Checks and some Updates

With temperatures in the low single digits today, we are surely in the thick of winter.  Last week, we finally received the replacement barn-ends that we ordered after the back of the barn tore in half during the Halloween storm.  Unfortunately, Matt and I concluded that we won’t actually complete the repairs until spring.  Neither of us want to battle stiff, uncooperative materials in terrible weather while the barn is filled with pregnant sheep.

Speaking of pregnant sheep, our vet Dr. Emily came out yesterday to ultrasound each of our ewes to check for pregnancy.  The news was mostly good- lots of multiples, ewes look generally healthy, and we even have a few pregnant ewe lambs!   We sent each ewe through the chute for a fairly low-stress exam.  It was a perfect opportunity to check on some of the ewes who are skillful at avoiding us under most circumstances.  I am so pleased with how chubby and healthy most of the flock is.  I really feel like I have that aspect under control at the moment.  I think the biggest factor is that Matt made all of our hay this year, and the ewes eat it with great gusto.

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I hold a sheep, Dr. Emily scans, assistant Allison evaluates

On the downside, we do have three open adult ewes.  Ewe lambs get a pass on not breeding their first year, but 1616, Beth and Eilis all scanned empty, much to my disappointment.  Sadly, we are reasonably sure that Eilis is dying, so we are preparing to euthanize her soon.  Two vets, endless exams and many treatments have all yielded no improvement in her condition.  Dr. Emily and her former owner agree that cancer is not unlikely.  I am so, so heartbroken that after all of the TLC we provided to Eilis, we have no offspring from her or from her sister, Beth.  Beth has been fat and healthy the whole time, but just won’t settle a pregnancy.  We are blood-testing her for a final chance that maybe her pregnancy could have been missed, but I am not holding my breath.

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Two Old Women

I’ve been sharing a series of pictures of ewes in the flock to help show people the individuals in the web of stories in the flock.  I am enjoying sharing these images – I want people to know how we see our ewes as singular beings with their own personalities.

We have two ewes who are a little extra-special, though.

Their names are K and J.  They are twin sisters, 10 years old, and just as darling as they surely were as lambs.  They are smaller in size than their herdmates.  I am not sure why – they do fight for their fair share of food and they aren’t underweight.  They’re just smaller of frame.   Both are down a few teeth here and there – this will be an issue down the line.

J has a serious look.  She’s all business and doesn’t really want to be friends.  She trundles right into the middle of the largest Border ewes intent on her share of feed.

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J, right between two of my largest Border ewes.

K has a gentler face.  She is less competitive, more tired, with a broken ear that no longer shows the BFL perkiness it once did.

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Sweet and gentle K

In 2020, I will need to make a tough decision.  As K and J slow down, I need to consider their place here.  Can I give them a safe and sequestered place if they become uncompetitive?  Each only raised one lamb last year, leaving us to raise an orphan from each.    My heart wants to keep them forever, but functionally, we can’t afford to.  The other temptation is to give them to a pet home where they could live out their days.  Sadly, I have too often seen other people with older animals who fail to recognize when it is time to let a sheep go.  I sympathize – it’s hard to recognize a discrete point in a slow decline when it is time to let an animal go.  But my responsibility is to the welfare of the sheep, fundamentally, and I must adhere to that.  With luck, they’ll keep chugging along and I can keep them here a little longer.