Posted by: morrisoncorner | April 17, 2009

Measuring Magic

Bunnah and twinsIcelandic sheep are considered a feral or unimproved breed of sheep. As a practical matter this is most obvious during lambing season. Many shepherds spend lambing season in a sleepless haze, assisting in difficult births and fussing over mothers and offspring. In our years of keeping Icelandics we’ve missed many more births than we’ve witnessed. In the early hours of the morning, while nursing the first coffee, one of us will remark to the other “how many sheep did we have yesterday? Because I think there are two more out there.”

White Icelandic LambExperience has taught us that if we don’t catch lambs while they’re still wet it is hopeless. As soon as they’ve dried off afterburners kick in and they can sprint like the wind. Or more to the point, much faster than a middle aged farmer. But the boundless energy and good health of past year’s lambs lulled us into a false sense of security and this spring and we went into April much too complacent. This year’s deep snows and cold spring were too much for our ewes to cope with and our first lamb died of the cold, while a yearling ewe developed a hernia during childbirth. She is still alive but she is too crippled to manage two lambs. Her larger lamb claimed what milk she had, leaving the smaller to beg for her supper. Since another ewe will not feed an orphan lamb we have a bottle lamb this spring.

Life is measured in ounces. Each ounce of milk replacer dribbled into this lamb is another hour of life. So we dribble. At five in the morning we start with a warm bottle. And again at 8:30. She has lunch around noon, and tea at 3:00. Dinner arrives at 6:00, and her evening snack around 10 pm. While we fought to get milk into her lamb the ewe nursed the one she could, and fussed over the one she couldn’t. To keep her tiny lamb warm she’d push her up into the wool on her back and lie for hours in an awkward crouch. The hernia that keeps her from lying comfortably is going to kill her. But as long as she’s alive she is going to fight for her lambs, so we fight with her.

Life measured in ounces. The lamb won’t drink and she isn’t gaining. We name her Feather as she gets lighter by the day. She spends hours wound up in her mother’s wool, which means her mother isn’t eating either. Without much hope we rearrange work schedules around feeding times and settle into a pattern of coaxing milk into a disinterested little soul. When the weekend arrives Feather is half the size of her sibling, barely taking in enough to keep herself alive.

But with the weekend arrives optimism in the form of a young friend and eager hands. Feather is picked up and plunked down on a small lap and suddenly a whole bottle disappears in thoughtful gulps. We try again, and again, the bottle goes down. Feather decides she likes her friend, and runs to her when she hears her voice. Overnight she goes from limp and disinterested to, if not eager for a bottle, at least willing to drink some of it on her own, and happy to do it in the lap of her friend.

Feather goes through 32 ounces of liquid formula a day, which is made with 6 ounces of powder. This formula costs $15.85 for a 3.5 pound bag, or 28 cents per ounce, $1.70 per day. A bag lasts 9 days. Bottle lambs are impossibly cute. Bottle lambs are cute so you won’t mind stumbling out the door with a bottle at five in the morning… and you won’t do the cold calculations which clearly show that out in your sheep shed is growing the most expensive white wool on the planet.

It is a conspiracy of cute. A motivated little girl can be cute too, with an armload of lamb; it is impossible to tell the two of them no. That raising Feather is not cost effective. That Feather will never grow to a decent size, that she may well be able to reproduce, but she’ll always be small, always be a worry. We don’t even try to explain the economies of bottle babies… and buy formula and a 50 pound bag of lamb feed, a high protein grain combination which is supposed to help put weight on Feather and wean her off her expensive milk habit.

Life measured in ounces. Feather is so small she can’t get to the feeder. The other lambs simply shoulder her aside. She walks around them looking for gaps but she has neither speed nor strength, so the well fed lambs gobble the grain and we pick Feather up and offer her a pan in the garage. She isn’t sure what is and refuses to try it.

So Feather is hand fed, one small scoop at a time. Sitting on a bucket I watch the grass grow and gauge when I can rotate fencing while Feather picks at her grain one pellet at a time and chews thoughtfully. The puppy lies on my feet and cleans up the bits Feather drops.

Feather’s friend knows the sheep by name and can pick them out from across the field: Bunnah, Daisy, Guiness, PT, Poof, Fudge, Snowball… not until Daisy was injured did we realize one young girl has named most of the sheep in our flock. Up until this year lambs were just fluffy playmates. This year she’s watching one of the lambs she named going down fighting furiously for the life of her own lambs, and she’s helping to keep one of those lambs alive.

Magic is made with small amounts of simple things. Six ounces of powdered formula, thirty two of water, four ounces of grain, spells another day, a small weight gain, and an enthusiastic greeting for Feather’s young friend. “Feather!” she calls as she approaches the fence. ”Feather!” and from the top of the pasture a curly little white lamb detaches herself from the flock and flings herself down the hill, and into a child’s memory.

Feeding Feather and multitasking

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