Working on a farm stay, like Diamond Forest Farm Stay, you never know what kind of day that you are going to have. Sure you may have your day mapped out in your head, have planned what you are going to tackle but you never really know how things are going to pan out. That’s just the way farming works. Some days are good. Some days are bad. Some days you wish you had never gotten out of bed.
Thursday morning started out like all others. Lying in bed until the last minute, snuggling up against the cold air of a winter’s morning; Stan from ABC South West radio (the only station we can get here) discussing the proposed rate increase by Albany council; our niece, visiting for the holidays, was up already and in the shower, music blaring, some song by an artist neither Mark or I had ever heard of. The dogs had climbed onto the bed looking for attention, scaring away Steve the cat but giving our other two cats, Pebbles and Munchkin, something to cuddle up to and subsequently taking up most of our bed as usual.
Just another ordinary day on the farm. Then we heard voices; young voices and my sleep fogged brain remembered it was lambing season. We had told all of our young guests that whoever spotted the new born lambs first and told us first, that they would have naming rights for the lambs. The voices remained. Clearly there had been lambs born. I groaned, climbed out of bed and threw some clothes on. In hindsight I’m glad I chose to put some clothes on and not just grabbed my dressing gown. Things were just about to go off plan. Way off plan.
There were indeed kids waiting at the office. Two excited children had spotted not one but two lambs. I congratulated them on their spotting and they told me they had already picked out names, Shaun and Oreo, even though I had yet to confirm if the lambs were male or female. But the kids were concerned. Shaun wasn’t standing up properly and they thought he might need help. I figured the lamb in question had probably only just been born and was still a little wobbly on its legs but it was worth checking out. I put on my boots and headed down to the paddock to check out our first born lambs of the season.
So there I was down in the paddock, hair unbrushed, teeth uncleaned, no breakfast or morning coffee, no glasses so the world was little blurry, in full view of half a dozen guests watching me from the fence line wondering if the day could be any worse. It could. The little lamb in question was definitely struggling to stand. It was weak and cold, its muscles cramping and it was extremely small. It also turned out that Shaun was indeed a little boy.
My niece had followed me down to the paddock, eager to see her first newborn lamb and as soon as I realised something was wrong I sent her off to get Mark. I gave a quick glance at Oreo, confirmed that Oreo was also a boy, took notice that he was nosing around the ewe’s udder looking for a drink and, while a little unsteady on his feet, he was standing okay. I focused on Shaun. I had a feeling this little one was going to be bottle fed and raised in our lounge room if he even made it through the next 24 hours.
As I waited for Mark, holding little Shaun against my body for warmth, I chatted to the guests looking on from the fence line, answered their questions about lambing and tried my best to not look too disheveled, despite now adding sheep poo and placenta blood on my jeans to my less than desirable appearance. It was during this time that I happened to glance over at Oreo and my heart sank. Shaun wasn’t the only one with problems.
Little Oreo had severe parrot mouth. Parrot mouth is when the lower jaw is shorter than the upper jaw making it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for the lamb to suckle its mother. If it is severe enough, even if you can get it to suckle properly, it will in all likelihood be unable to eat grass as the two jaws don’t meet. Several years ago we had a few lambs born like this and we sought advice from sheep farmers, the vets and even Google. Some said it was a vitamin B deficiency, others that it was a genetic fault and we should probably swap out our ram. As we had used the same ram for a lot of years and had never had any problems we decide to go down the vitamin path. Since then we hadn’t had any problems. Until now.
Now we had one twin lamb with parrot mouth and another weak and extremely small. How was I going to explain this to the two kids, eagerly watching from the fence line, that neither twin lamb’s odds of surviving were very high? Involving children in the new life on a farm can be an amazing and wondrous experience. This was not going to be one of those times.
By this time Mark had arrived sans morning coffee bringing his usual calm and pragmatic farmer personae along. He took one look at Shaun and Oreo and grimaced. Our eyes met. ‘What do we tell the kids?’ ‘The truth. . .but gently and let’s make sure the parents are there so they can explain it better to their children in a way that works for them.’
So we told the kids, and their parents, that both Shaun and Oreo had a big struggle ahead of them; that there was a possibility that they wouldn’t make it but that we would do our absolute best to get them through. We let the kids hold them, took photographs of them holding them, and then little Shaun came with me to the house and Mark took the mum and Oreo up to a sheltered paddock with a shed. He left them there to see if the lamb would suckle on its own before heading off to brush his teeth, despite not having had breakfast or coffee, and he began our daily animal feeding, distracting the children from the drama that was unfolding around the newborn lambs.
Meanwhile I was busy in the kitchen making up lamb formula and defrosting a bottle of cow colostrum to feed first to little Shaun and then to Oreo if he wasn’t managing to suckle. Shaun tucked up in an old towel was busy getting warm against my chest as I measured out powder and warm water one handed. Somewhere in the mix I managed to get down a cup of coffee.
With a good feed in him Shaun was starting to loosen up and, despite being really, really small, I had hopes that we could nurse him through the worst of it. Unfortunately my hopes for Oreo were quickly dashed. He could not suckle on his mother’s teat at all and no matter how hard I tried I could not get him to suckle the bottle. He was so hungry and was trying to suckle so hard but his jaw was just too deformed. By the time Mark joined me two hours later after he had finished the animal feeding, I had conceded defeat. Nature had won over nurture and we made the heartbreaking decision to not prolong his suffering.
Now all of our hopes were on Shaun and when the kids crowded around we focused on how well Shaun was doing. Shaun was now standing and mum, bereft of her other lamb, was focusing solely on him. He was suckling well but we knew we would have to top him up a bit for a while until we knew for sure he was going to be fine. Sadly 48 hours later, Shaun too, was gone despite all of our efforts.
This season would prove to be a very difficult one as our next ewe to lamb had triplets, two of which were stillborn and we resigned ourselves to the fact that our ram might, indeed, need to retire. Perhaps it was genetics and his age was coming against him.
Thankfully after loss came joy. The single triplet that survived, Tobias Charlie, thrived. Another ewe had twins Dipsy and Lala (a boy and girl) and last night another ewe had two healthy little boys. While the season itself turned out to be okay in the end if I had of known how bad that first day was going to be I think I might have just stayed in bed.