Someone once told me the story of a man who judged a woman’s suitability to be his partner on her ability to handle a country stile. If she hopped over it without issue or complaint, she was in —at least for a time. Anything to the contrary, and she was shown the door, or the gate, as may be more apt in this particular scenario.
While my athletic ability has thankfully never been taken to task in the three years that Jack and I have been together, I can recall a few instances which, in hindsight, could well have been tests of my potential to become a long-term fixture around the farm.
There was the time he asked if I’d like to have a go at wrapping a bale, for example. The first time he pulled a calf in front of me. Or, and certainly for me, the most nerve-wracking one of all, the times he has asked me to stop a gap while he moves cattle.
I passed not one of these tests with flying colours, tearing the wrapping on the bale, and applauding when the calf was born only to be informed that it could well be dead . . . (it wasn’t, thankfully.) As far as the gap-stopping goes, I will say that despite my fear, I’ve always managed to stand my ground, wave my arms and make a convincing enough noise that the cattle have carried on their merry way down the road. I can only hope that this particular task gets easier with time and practice.
The latest test, then, came a few weeks back. We were in the house, Jack showing me live action footage of the sheep shed courtesy of the newly mounted cameras when noticed a yeaning ewe in a spot of bother.
He asked if I’d like to try my hand at pulling a lamb.
Up until the age of around 14 when my pet rabbit died and I lost all faith in the profession, I had harboured dreams of becoming a vet. I fed my ambition by devouring James Herriot’s books, and I was a sucker for any of those TV shows like Vets in Practice or Animal Hospital.
In the course of my “studies,” I’d read about lambing. I’d watched it on TV, and I’d finally seen it in person —albeit from a distance— on the farm in Kildare the previous spring.
With such groundwork laid, I felt confident that, should the opportunity present itself, I would be able to successfully deliver a baby sheep.
And now, my moment had arrived. I was in my purple wellies and half way up the drive before Jack had a chance to reconsider his offer.
Once inside the shed, the ewe wasn’t difficult to pick out. Laying on her side, she breathed quickly and heavily, straining to bring her baby into the world. She had a number one marked on her side. Jack had explained the numbering system to me before, and now shared that because she was a single, the chances of the lamb being big were greater than if she were having two or three little ones.
He took the ewe’s head and instructed me to position myself at the back end. “See if you can get a hold of the front legs,” he said.
I eyed the area below the ewe’s tail where a little snout was beginning to appear. “So, I just put my hand in there?” I said, dubiously.
Jack nodded. I could tell that he was doing his best to stay calm but I registered a quiet urgency, nonetheless.
I knew that the more I thought about it, the nervier I would get. There was nothing else for it: I bid farewell to my recently manicured hand, and took the plunge.
I hadn’t a clue what I was feeling for, or indeed, what I was feeling at all! Jack instructed me to run my hand along the length of the warm, spongy mass that I could only assume was the lamb, and locate the two front legs. After a moment’s exploration, I was delighted to find one. However, when a few more minutes passed with no second leg to be found, now up to my elbow in ewe, I voiced my concern that this lamb may, in fact, only have the one leg to begin with.
To give Jack his dues, whatever he thought of me in that moment, he didn’t vocalize. He simply suggested that we swap positions. And so, while he began his search for the elusive other foreleg, I knelt gently yet firmly on the ewe and held her head. I also took the opportunity to whisper my apologies about the indignity of it all.
Though worried for the wellbeing of both mother and baby, I found some small reassurance in the fact that Jack, the experienced farmer, also had bother finding the other front leg — welcome proof that I wasn’t completely inept.
But find it he did, and after switching positions a few more times, between the two of us, we brought the lamb —a great big brute of a thing— into the world.
Not for the first time, I marvelled at the stoicism of the mother animal. She hadn’t let so much as a whimper out of her the entire time, and now, just seconds after delivering her baby, she was tending to it, cleaning and nuzzling it, any lingering discomfort overpowered out by her instinct to nurture and protect.
As for Brutus the Lamb, no sooner had he slid out onto the bed of straw, than he was scrambling to get to his feet — of which, I’m happy to report, he had all four.
Jack headed off to do his rounds, but I stayed put for a few minutes more, watching and waiting for Brutus to take his first shaky steps.
My first lambing was certainly not the seamless experience I would’ve hoped for. I would have liked to have managed it without needing any intervention from Jack. However the experience served as a reminder that plan though you might, mother nature follows no script. I’ve come to learn that taking initiative, working well under pressure, and rising to a challenge is all part and parcel of farming.
I doubt producers of The Supervet will be looking to cast me as an understudy any time soon, but as I watched the floppy-eared creature continue his quest to stand, I was glad that we’d ended the day with another healthy lamb added to the flock — which is that all that matters, really.