She’s alone, sat by the windswept hawthorn that crouches on the north facing fence line. A spot chosen with care; sheltered but not hidden with nowhere for predators to hide.
At any other time of year I’d think she was sickening in some hidden way. Sheep are stoic. A sick sheep won’t tell, they carry on until it’s time to find a place to die and quietly leave the flock. It’s spring though; season of transition and beginning. As days lengthen and bitter winds mellow it’s birth not death that leads my stoic ewe to go against every habit she knows and sit alone.
There’s no wind but the air isn’t still; it moves with a gentle energy excited by the possibilities of the season. The light is different too. No longer the muted rays of the shortest days but renewed, bringing a bright clarity to the greening land under an endless awning of rolling blue.
She rolls slightly to the side. Our ram raises his head, watches intently and positions himself a respectful distance away. He stands guard and the older ewes usher the flock away to graze.
In the background I can hear a distant urban hum, start of the working day that leaks across the landscape to this rural scene. This is her first time but instinct guides her confidently through the last stages of labour. A glistening appears, bulging beneath her tail. She pauses, no distress just a gathering of her will. In a fluid second the glistening grows large and separates from her body.
Our ram remains alert, it’s not his first time. He waits for the ewe’s verdict. Is her lamb viable or is there some hidden flaw that somehow she, and only she, will know means abandonment is the better choice for the flock. Or will she panic, the trauma of birth flooding her brain and washing away her mothering instinct. Not this time. She licks and coaxes her lamb to breathe. All the while with a gentle whickering reassurance ” yes you’re mine “
Despite the gentle warm caress of spring tide sunshine there’s no rest for ewe or lamb. Prey animals need to move. Barely adjusted to his existence in the world he needs to find his feet. Nascent neurological connections begin their work and shakily he discovers legs. At a few minutes old these wobbling stilts raise him skyward for a whole new view of the world and the urge to find food drives him to move.
First milk seals the bond between ewe and lamb. Milk brings a scent to the lamb unique to every ewe. A triple locked, secure identifier that marks this lamb as hers and not other. A furiously wagging tail shows he’s found a teat and milk is flowing.
I’ve been a silent observer so far but now it’s time to interrupt. Ewe and lamb will need a few days in the barn safe from foxes.
As I approach our ram catches my eye. I explain what I want to do, quiet and calm. I’m a predator but he’s known me since birth and we’ve done this before. He considers my credentials, nods acceptance and stands down returning to graze with the flock.
My ewe is wary. If it was just her she’d run but she has a lamb now. She dances away and then back trying to distract me “Take me, over here, come on”. I know she will follow her lamb so I hook my shepherd’s crook around his middle and gently carry him a crook length away.
“Follow your baby, here he is, there we go, through the gate” I croon a benevolent running commentary walking backwards to the barn. She follows tied by an invisible thread bleating intermittently to her lamb “I’m here I’m following”. Every so often she dares to rush closer nuzzling him, a quick once over checking he’s still real.
We pass the nursery paddock, the other ewes and their lambs gather at the gate and their presence distracts her. Herd instinct overcomes her and she turns to join them. The invisible thread stretches gossamer thin. I pause, her lamb senses the loss and bleats a plea. Confused she stops and starts “Where, what?” I nudge her lamb closer
“Remember he’s yours”
“Is he ? Yes”