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A sheep’s tale

“And he shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.” Sheep are mentioned in the Bible over 500 times and, even though most of us have never been exposed to sheep farming, we have a kind of heuristic understanding of the metaphors.

But a few of us recently got a crash course in sheep that lends a clarity to the Biblical references we never expected to have.

As you may know, Ellen Reather has a small flock of sheep; nine ewes to be exact, known affectionately as “the mamas who munch” (apologies to the Ladies who Lunch).

Last fall George, the ram, came to visit the girls and get to “know” them, and, sure enough a few weeks ago the evidence of his presence began to appear. By the end of the week eight lambs had joined the flock, bearing witness to George as every bit a Lothario.

Living just across the street from Ellen’s pasture, Karen and I have enjoyed the flock vicariously, occasionally feeding them Saltines and refilling their water bowl in the heat of summer, so it is no surprise that lambing season has been a particular pleasure for us.

When we went to show the lambs to Karen’s niece after church a couple of weeks ago we noticed that one of the ewes was in the process of delivering a lamb, in fact, the lamb’s head had emerged from the birth canal. She seemed to be having trouble delivering but we assumed that she would complete the delivery in her time.

Later in the afternoon, dressed for Evensong, we decided to stop by again and check on the lamb. The unfortunate creature was still in the same position some four hours after we had first seen it. After a quick caucus with Ellen we decided we had to help the ewe finish the delivery, even though the lamb appeared stillborn.

Ellen herded the ewe into the stall and I grabbed her head to hold her while Ellen tried, to no avail, to help her birth the lamb. We changed positions but still with no success, except that the lamb opened its mouth. It was alive! There was no question what to do: call Dave Matthews, a sheep farmer and Ellen’s sheep expert.

Without hesitation Dave knew what had to be done. The lamb had to be delivered or both lamb and mother would be lost. Ellen put me on the phone for a brief course in sheep anatomy and lamb delivery, and then we swung into action.

First, a quick run home to don my grubbiest jeans and grab a bunch of rubber gloves. Second, a little anesthetic—not for the sheep, for me—a couple of glasses of champagne in anticipation of a successful delivery. And then down to work.

At the laundry sink we scrubbed, just like we’d seen a million times on Dr. Kildare, and put on our rubber gloves. Ellen stationed herself at the ewe’s head to hold her steady and keep her calm. I had the business end. The goal was to find the lamb’s front legs and get them free to emerge next to its head. Its right leg was located quickly but the left leg eluded me for quite some time until finally I hooked it with my finger and managed to pull it free. Shortly thereafter the rest of the lamb followed and we had delivered a living, breathing being. The sense of exhilaration was indescribable. Of course, more champagne was a must!

Unfortunately the trauma of his entry into this world was too much for little Donnie, as he was called. He only made it for a couple of days, but we rejoice in an experience we never dreamed we would have and in the survival of his mother.

End of story? Not quite.

While all of this was going on we noticed that one of a pair of twins born a week earlier was being shunned by its mother. This occasionally happens for a variety of reasons; in this case it may be that this lamb was a runt, being significantly smaller than the rest of the lambs.

We spoke with Dave again and decided that this lamb would have to be removed from the flock and bottle–fed if it was to survive. The next morning we went to find him and finally located him nestled in a hole at the base of a tree out in the pasture, totally neglected by his mother and the rest of the ewes.

Dave brought us an emergency supply of lamb formula to tide us over and now, two weeks later, Ryan (as in “Saving Private Ryan”) tippy-taps his way around our kitchen and sunroom, wearing pampers and feeding on four bottles a day, usually sitting on mother Karen’s lap. Kaleb, our hyperactive Doberman, has resigned himself to his new brother and ignores him, except for the occasional lamb/dobie races around the kitchen. Never a dull moment in the Ruthig house. DPR

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