Early this morning my mother-in-law Mary and I went down to the barn to help my husband Zack mark lambs. For non-country folks, “marking” is putting ear tags in the lambs’ ears and secondly, rubber-banding the testicles of ram lambs. While this may seem cruel, it’s not as brutal as the much older method that involved sharp knives.
Still, it isn’t a particularly pleasant task for us and certainly even more unpleasant for the lambs. Actually one of the hardest parts is to separate the lambs from their mothers. We herded the flock to the smaller end of their corral in the barn, closed off escape routes and began the quest to catch up several lambs at a time, check their gender, put ewe lambs into a separate alley way and rubber band any ram lambs, then one by one, place them in the alley.
In the meantime, the mamas are desperately pushing and shoving each other as they blat for their babies. There’s also the daddy of them all, a short stocky ram we got last fall, pushing and shoving with the rest, his curled horns adding some excitement to our own efforts to dash in close and catch a lamb.
When all the lambs were accounted for, we opened the alley gate and the back barn gate and there was a mad dash for freedom. For a while outside the mothers milled around calling their offspring and sniffing out pretenders that they quickly butted away none too gently. Hopefully all the lambs ended up with their own mother or at least one that will tolerate them, which seldom happens.
Walking up the road towards home, I remembered my first lambing season, 1981. Seeing my excitement and enthusiasm for lambing, my father-in-law Murph had taken me under his wing. Back then the flock lambed in winter. In fact, that Christmas Eve after supper, he and I had lamb check duties. We went up to the barn and began to check the ewes to see if any had lambed or were in the process since our last check.
Sure enough, there was one ewe that had a lamb and was trying hard to deliver a second one. I could see the lamb’s hooves, but no matter how hard she tried, the lamb didn’t emerge any farther. Murph signaled me to come close. He squatted there in back of the ewe and gently took hold of the lamb’s protruding legs.
Each time mama strained, Murph would pull just a bit. Finally with one great groan and help from Murph, the ewe pushed the lamb out onto the hay. At first it didn’t breathe. Murph told me to tickle its nose with a strand of hay. The lamb sneezed, twitched its head and shook itself. Then mama started nuzzling it and giving these little chuckles.
We waited in the quiet and watched until the lamb managed to stand on those wobbly legs. Soon it was nursing and with each swallow its little tail twitched.
Murph went over to the lambing cabinet on the wall and pulled out a bottle that I had noticed there. I’d heard a tiny bit of whiskey was an old remedy for a cold, weak lamb, but Murph pulled out two short glasses. He poured a shot in each and handed me one.
I wasn’t a whiskey drinker, but no way would I refuse. Murph raised his glass to me then drank his down. I raised mine but it took me three or four swallows and some serious gasping while Murph laughed. We headed up the hill where gift opening awaited. That night at the barn was the best one I received that year.