On the birth of a lamb
John Lewis-Stempel, farmer and author of the 2015 Wainwright Prize winning Meadowland, witnesses the delivery of a brand new sheep in this beautiful exclusive piece
The moonlight is sufficient for me to see everything clearly. The bare trees around me are simply arms thrusting through the earth, grasping for sky.
On the frosted ground where I am hunkered, the moonglow through the branches makes a monochrome willow pattern. Black. White.
There is nothing uglier than a new born lamb, and this one, like all the others, comes into the world in an alien pod of slime. (Or, if you were of a cruel frame of mind, you would say the membrane shroud anticipates exactly that future plastic day on the supermarket shelf.) The mother is mute throughout; sheep are prey animals, and try for silence when weak.
A barn owl screams from the ivy in the oak down the field. It might be March, the so-called first month of spring, but retreating Winter has turned and stuck its talons into Herefordshire. I am shivering, despite the multiple gilets and coats which make me look like the Michelin man’s fat brother.
Is the lamb alive? In this night scene on the last hillside of England before it runs into Wales, the yellow encasing the lamb is the only colour; the lamb’s mother is a Juglet (black-and-white to non-sheepophiles) Shetland. She has a name, Soo, and she has been with us through change of farm, change of flock. When my daughter was a baby, Soo was a lamb herself. At some indefinable point in the past Soo passed from being part of the flock to part of another family. Ours.
Is the lamb alive? Nothing kills lambs like hypothermia. With me I have a plastic tool box crammed with every resuscitation device and potion known to Evans Farm Shop, but I don’t want to play Herriot unless I absolutely have to. Shetlands are primitive sheep, and too much human interference breaks the ovine mother-child bond.
Is the lamb alive…? Ah yes, there is a tremble in the chest.
Will Soo do her usual magnificent maternal routine? Yes, she is licking the lamb, licking it. First the membrane off the face, then stimulating the lamb’s body with her tongue.
The lamb is a black-and-white patchwork, because this is one of those magic nights when the designs of Nature are perfectly co-ordinated. The lamb does a perceptible shake of the head. Then a snuffle. In dialect, the lamb is ‘sharp’ – vital. Within minutes it is up on its preposterous stilts.
Will the tottery lamb find the teats? The lamb head-butts all the wrong places… Ah, yes, the lamb has latched on. The tiny tail wiggles happily.
The lamb is beautiful. Because, of course, nothing is prettier, gentler-eyed than a new lamb. When the lamb has suckled, I pick it up and spray the navel in gentian violet to prevent joint ill. In my hands, I can feel the silken curls of its fleece. A girl. She will be kept and she will be called Moonlight.
My eyes are teary, but only, of course, because of the cold.
Soo – protective, annoyed – stamps her feet. I return the lamb to her and she leads it along the sheep path, which is etched into the hillside by generations of hooves. They become shadows on the frost. Black. White.
Meadowland, John Lewis-Stempel (Doubleday) is available now. For more books best read in the great outdoors, visit our Rural Reads Pinterest board.
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