Watch carefully, and during spring on a farm you’ll see life express itself in all sorts of ways. Seedlings sprout overnight in the greenhouse, the peeps of chicks grow louder, grass shoots up, new ideas and projects take root, and lambing begins.
I’ve been looking forward to the lambs since I got here in January, and they’ve been on the ewes’ minds even longer. Our 9 ewes have gotten steadily rounder and rounder as winter gave way to an early spring and their feed transitioned from hay and grain to fresh pasture. The first little ones appeared on the morning of April 14th. I was bringing hay to our beef herd when I glanced at the sheep and saw a ewe off by herself at the far end of the paddock flanked by two small white lumps. Twins! The little girls (named Bo and Peep) were still covered in gunk but already starting to stand on impossibly long legs. We moved the whole flock to the pasture surrounding Henning and Elizabeth’s house that day to keep a close eye on the proceedings.
And good thing we did! The next afternoon, Elizabeth noticed a ewe in labor who seemed to be having an unusually difficult time. We all kept an eye on her while we went about our work in the garden, but come that evening, she was still struggling. Henning decided it was time to intervene. Enlisting apprentices Adam and Kyle to hold down the tired mother-to-be, he reached into the birth canal and felt that the lamb was breech. He grasped both legs of the lamb with one hand, and with the other inside the birth canal straightened the hips and then found the head and chest and gently pushed the lamb downward while pulling on the legs. In typical presentation, the shoulders and hips are able to slide through the path already widened by the head; in breech, however, the entire body has to emerge before the mother can push out the head, leaving her extremely exhausted and vulnerable to sepsis while putting the baby at risk of suffocation. Henning kept pulling for at least five minutes, working hard with the mother to finally birth a big, beautiful male. Time stood still for a moment as the lamb lay motionless on the ground… and then cheers erupted when he breathed his first breath.
I took a break from milking Abby to watch the battle-weary mother meticulously wash her newborn. From pink nose to hooves, she licked him clean and nuzzled him into life. I laughed out loud when he tried to stand up on his long wobbly legs, first making it only halfway up, next tumbling forward, then sending his legs sprawling out sideways. Henning named him Askeladden, or Ashlad in English, following the nursery rhyme theme established by Bo and Peep, but of course giving it a Nordic twist. Ashlad is the wily hero of many Norwegian folk tales, a Cinderella-like underdog who succeeds where others fail. Our Ashlad now trails behind his mother, heads taller than the other lambs, marked by palpable determination.
Whenever I see him I’m reminded that he and his mother probably would not have survived without human help, that we are in a covenant with the animals we keep here. Ashlad and the other lambs will be slaughtered in the fall. This fact does not render their births and vital young lives any less precious, but just reflects another essential rhythm here on the farm. We offer our animals protection and aid, and they provide us with food. Life gives life.