Wednesday started very early for me, as Mrs Farmer knocked on the door at about 1.30am, with the news that there was a sheep in the barn with a head showing. I dressed as quickly as I could, fumbling with buttons and zips, half-asleep, but waking quickly. A head showing is not at all a good thing – the lambs should come with two feet and the head following. A head that is showing needs to be repulsed (pushed back in) and the feet then need to be brought forward so that the lamb can be delivered. If the head has come through, this can mean that the lamb needs to breathe, so this needs sorting quickly. If left alone, the lamb will certainly die, and, unable to deliver, the sheep will push until exhausted and then die herself.
It transpired that Sir had reported that the sheep was in the early stages of labour at the 11pm watch, but not progressing, so it was decided to check her up a couple of hours later. Mrs Farmer had got up and found her in this state. When I got outside, Mrs Farmer was on her hands and knees edging the labouring sheep to the exit of the pen, so she could go up into the labour ward. I assisted and we got her in and prepared to intervene straight away.
There are lots of buckets in the labour ward and it is important to get them right. Small buckets are for putting feed in at mealtimes for the sheep. Large coloured buckets (purple, blue, or grey) are for water. A big black bucket, with string tied on the handle, is for disinfecting the pens between patients. A yellow bucket is for washing hands and disinfecting ropes. When a sheep needs to be examined, the yellow bucket is filled, a splash of Dettol added, and the ropes are put in to be disinfected, and wetted for us. Hands can then be washed, gloop can then be applied, and Mrs Farmer can examine. Normally, we get warm water from the house, but in the urgency of this case, we just used cold water from the Labour Ward.
Mrs Farmer managed to get the head back in with some difficulty, as the cervix had not dilated very well. She then found feet, but they appeared to belong to a different lamb than the head, and it seemed that a breech lamb was locked with a forward lamb. After some considerable trying to sort out exactly what was happening, and reaching deep inside a tight sheep who was contracting against intruding hands. It was quite exhausting, even for me, and I was only holding the sheep in place (with some difficulty, and we were glad when she decided to sit down, making things easier. Eventually, I summoned Sir, who has longer arms, and would hopefully be able to sort things out.
Sir came to assist at 2.30am. By now we had been trying to deliver the lamb for over an hour, and were fairly sure it was probably dead, but needed to keep going in case it wasn’t, and in the hope there was a following lamb that was alive. Sir managed to ascertain that the feet did indeed belong to the presenting head, and, after a real heave, with ropes and quite a bit of manipulation, a large lamb was pulled forth, sadly, showing no signs of life. The lamb was swing around (which will often induce a distressed lamb to breathe) but was clearly dead. It was presented to the mother for her to lick and register that it was dead. Sir checked, but there was no other lamb.
This was very sad all around. We were sad that the effort and investment of many months had not resulted in a lamb. We were sad that our own efforts over the last hour, to save the lamb, were in vain. We were sad for the mother, who had no lamb to care for.
Death is a part of farming. Giving birth is dangerous. It reminded me that the reality for many women in the world is that, even for humans, giving birth is dangerous and infant and mother mortality is far too high around the world. It reminded me of the real miracle of birth – that in the midst of toil, of pain, and of mess, comes new life.