When I made my way up to the sheep shed I saw one lamb laying down in the snow, head up, enjoying the sunshine. So that was the little squeaker I heard? I did not see the other. So I went inside to the shed. What I discovered was a very sad sight. One of Split Ear's lambs did not make it through the night. There the three-day old lamb lay, quiet and stiff. Split Ear was behind me walked up to the dead babe. She pawed and pawed at the lamb to wake it up. It was heartbreaking.
I scooped up the remaining lamb and it felt so different than the last time I held him, as if he was full of air and bones. I brought it to my lap and sat under the heat lamp and started offering him the bottle. He took to it, and he took it well. Soon he lost that light feeling and was standing and alert but shivering even under the lamp on a fairly mild morning. I made the decision to bring him inside and walked down the hill with a dead lamb under one arm and a live one in the other, Split Ear following me till I stepped over the fence. It was a very small funeral parade.
The lamb was fed replacer and warmed by the fire. He is perking up and walking around the living room as I type, sucking on my flannel coat and dog bothering. I hope he makes it. He seems to have a lot of fight in him, something I respect in all animals. I will be feeding him regularly and hoping to keep him outside with the rest of the flock if he does. At this point I don't know if he will or not. I accept either outcome, but will keep working for a healthy ram lamb.
And since I am writing about this, I'd like to address something. Every time an animal dies here I write about it. And every time I do that critics think I'm a failure and irresponsible. I also get an opposite response. I'll get emails from people offering money for vet care and telling me I should save the animal no matter what, and anything else is heartless and horrible. But for me to call an emergency vet to come to this farm would cost more than I could ever sell the lamb for, nearly double. And I am not calling in a vet for an 8-year-old ewe with half-dry udder either. Not because I am cold or cheap, but because I am being realistic. If she was a prize winning, 3 year old, I would. If she was Brick, I would. But not for this sheep. I know that sounds harsh, but that is the reality of farming vs keeping pets you eat. I would rather keep living the life of my dreams than appease angry people on the internet. I am still here with my own life to lead after they close their browser windows and go to the grocery store to buy more bacon.
I don't see myself or Cold Antler Farm as a failure, ever. I do not see this old farmhouse I bought in my late twenties and fight to keep as a failure. I don't see four years of paid mortgage bills, 2 of which I have been self-employed at my dream job, as a failure. Nor do I see the two gorgeous lambs out of Brick, one already sold and a flock of 6 healthy sheep as a failure. I don't see my dream horse, paid off in full, standing there on the hillside as a failure. I don't see the mother/daughter team of Alpine goats with kids on the way as a failure. Nor do I see years of kidding healthy little goatlings as a failure. I don't see the four fat pigs, soon to be butchered for friends and neighbors, as a failure. I don't see my beautiful sheepdog, or my 15 year old Husky, as a failure. I don't see my two original goslings, Cyrus and Saro as a failure, out there with their daughter Ryan splashing in the creek. It is so easy to look at one horrible thing and not realize what a small piece of the whole it is.
Not to say there have not been failures here, oh, there have been plenty! If you consider losing an animal a failure, that is. I see it as a learning experience that builds every season, helping make me a better farmer and stronger woman. But regardless of these mistakes I know that ten years from now I will still have sheep, and those lambs will still occasionally die, too. That's part of this.
This post is not about a dead lamb, or angry people, or the bottle baby here at my side. This post is me talking to all of you out there with a farm and animals, or the dream for a farm and animals. The bigger picture is what needs to always be in the front of your mind. It is not irresponsible to lose one lamb, but spending all of my attention, resources, and money on him while the other animals are waiting to be cared for is. This ability to see a farm as a puzzle and not the puzzle pieces. You do your best to keep the pieces crisp and clean and organized but in the end it is the bigger picture that matters. You can still see the final image if pieces are missing, you just need to accept that it isn't perfect. That is what this post is about.
Friends, I am writing all this next to the fireplace on my laptop. The little ram lamb is here warming by the fire, now sleeping. Soon as the sun warms up a bit more he will go outside to be with his mother and I will feed him throughout the day. He may spend the night inside, I'm not sure yet. What I am sure of is that four years ago I probably would have lost both lambs. I didn't know what a weak newborn vs a hearty one looked like. I didn't have the experience of bottle feeding and paste in stock on the farm shelves. I wasn't the woman I am now. I was still putting the puzzle together.
I'll end this post by sharing this. I got an email from another farmer this winter who said "I can't believe you are brave enough to raise sheep and write about it. I can't think of another farm animal that is harder to help." She is right, but these are the livestock that got me into larger animal farming and they are the ones that have taught me more than all the other animals combined. I raise them because they force me to be better. They are fidelity and courage on four hooves and the animal I am most terrified and proud of. Even if they are the missing pieces sometimes.