The Grim Reaper

 

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This blog is dedicated to David Dines, agricultural lecturer at Kingston Maurward College. David kindly and patiently taught Bridget and Dominic about raising sheep, and his generosity with his vast knowledge has been both a comfort and an example to us.

That morning we saw one of the ewes give birth on the lambing shed’s camera system. This ‘lamb-cam’ has been a real boon – our house is separated from the farm, and being able to monitor things from home via an internet link has made this Spring’s lambing much easier.

It was Saturday, and with four excited children we drove up in the Land-rover. The ewe was doing well, having given birth to a fine ewe lamb. As I dressed the lamb’s navel with Iodine, Bridget checked the ewe’s udders. By squirting a few drops from each udder by hand, we can help prevent problems with mastitis, and be sure that there is colostrum available for the new lamb.

We fenced the ewe and lamb off from the others in the pen with temporary hurdles. This lets them both settle down for a couple of hours before moving to their own bonding pen, and helps us to keep a close eye on the mother in case a second lamb appears. This can be some time after the first birth, but usually the ewe gives some warning – she starts straining or lies down in that characteristic way they do before giving birth.

On this occasion she passed her afterbirth without apparent effort. Bridget checked it and called out in surprise – it was not the expected afterbirth but a second lamb. I ran over. It was the smallest ewe lamb that either of us had seen, no bigger than my hand.

Bridget and I looked at each other. Even using all the tricks we knew, survival for this lamb was a very slim prospect. But the children were already there, hanging expectantly over the side of the pen, demanding to see the new lamb. I showed them as I dressed her navel, and Bridget gently explained that the lamb was so small that she might not survive the day.

“You’ve saved small ones before…” said Max, our 12 year old, but his voice trailed off.

She was so very small. Felix and Gus looked and said nothing. The silence was broken by Sacha, our 7 year old daughter:

“We’re going to call her Tiny”.

My heart sank. The lamb had next to no chance, and in any case naming animals on the farm is usually avoided. Of course we are their custodians, and we want to look after them well, but in the end we run a farm. Our business is turning grass into lamb and wool, not running a petting zoo.

I tried to dissuade Sacha from naming it. She listened to me, and then patiently repeated, as though speaking to an obtuse child:

“We are calling her Tiny”.

The name had already caught the imagination of the other children, so Tiny it was.

I rubbed the lamb dry while Bridget gently milked the ewe and drew off 100 ml of colostrum. This life-giving first milk contains all the anti-bodies Tiny would desperately need to fight off infection. She was far too small to feed by bottle, so I would have to stomach tube her.

The stomach tube has probably saved more lambs than any other single piece of kit in the lambing shed. It is a thin, soft tube that is slid down the back of the lamb’s throat into the stomach and then attached to a large syringe. The colostrum is then poured into the open syringe, and fed into the lamb’s stomach by gravity. It quickly gets a precise amount of colostrum to exactly where it is needed, usually with the minimum of fuss.

I put Tiny over my leg and, with the children anxiously watching, slid the tube into her mouth. It would not go down. I tried again, still no luck. By the 10th attempt, I was stressed and the children and Tiny were becoming increasingly restless. I tried again, carefully aiming the tube upwards so that it would slide down the throat, not the windpipe. Tiny struggled for a second, and then the tube slid easily down into her stomach. I wiped away the sweat from my eyes and attached the syringe full of colostrum.

The children watched anxiously as the colostrum slowly seeped into her stomach. After she had taken 50 ml, Bridget wrapped her in a towel and we took her home, putting her in a box in front of the fire to keep her warm.

The children mounted a vigil over her and remained deaf to our warnings that she was not likely to live. After 3 hours we gave her another 50 ml of colostrum, again after a dozen attempts to get the tube down into her stomach. Tiny was so small that any slight misalignment in the tube meant that it entered her lungs rather than her stomach. Every feed was going to prove difficult.

We milked her ewe again so that we would have enough to feed Tiny every 3 hours. Sacha stayed with Tiny almost constantly, stroking her head and talking to her. Contact is important for a young lamb, and by the evening Tiny could at least lift her head to Sacha’s touch. It was progress, but not much.

By the midnight feed, Tiny was looking no better, and at 3 am, slightly worse. I fed her again at 6 am, but knew then, as I sat by the fire, that she would not survive the morning. She was listless and unable to raise her head any more. I dreaded having to break it to Sacha.

I glanced up from the lamb to find Sacha standing in front of me in her pyjamas. She looked at me.

“I’m afraid that she is not going to make it, Sacha” I said.

Sacha nodded, dry eyed and brave.

“She’s just too small, you see?” I continued softly.”We’ve tried for her. She’s been kept warm, kept fed and you‘ve given her company, but she’s too small to live. She won’t make it to lunch time.”

Sacha looked me squarely in the eyes and replied:

“’SHE’ is called Tiny”, and she carefully stroked Tiny’s head.

I checked the lambing shed that morning with sickness in my heart. I wished then that the children had not seen the birth of this second lamb, that we had shielded them from it. Sacha is only just 7, and she was not ready for what was coming that morning – Tiny was going to meet the Grim Reaper.

Tiny died in front of the fire that morning at 11 o’clock. Bridget called Sacha over and broke it to her as gently as a parent can. Bridget took the box with Tiny’s body in it and placed it in the downstairs lavatory, telling Sacha that I would take it away when I got back. Bridget then told me the news over the farm VHF radio, adding that Sacha had said nothing and gone off to her bedroom. I felt how miserable Sacha must be, and wished again that I could turn back the clock.

Later on, as I picked up the box from the house, I saw a note had been carefully laid next to Tiny’s body. It was a handmade card, on pink paper. I opened it and read, in a carefully printed child’s hand:

‘To Tiny, I hoped that you wouldn’t die, but you did. Love from Sacha.’

I stood there for a long time holding that card. The gentleness of a child had suddenly diminished the Grim Reaper’s power. I knew that he would visit again – that’s farming – but, as I held that card, I also knew that his visits would never be quite the same again.

 

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