It was a freezing cold morning in early January when Art woke me with the news.
“We have a lamb,” he said.
We were afraid of this – we expected the lambs to arrive early this year, but we hoped we’d sneak through this cold spell before they did.
It was ten degrees below zero. I could see them from the kitchen window – the
all-white ewe standing apart from the others with her all-black lamb standing beside her.
The world outside was covered in ice.
I went out to find the ewe was ignoring her lamb. Art had just given them their day’s ration of hay– it is always mayhem when the sheep are fed in the morning– they move from hay pile to hay pile, as if someone else’s pile might be preferable to one’s own, when all of it comes from the same hay bale. (It was sheep who invented the idiom, “The grass is always greener…”) The poor little lambs try to keep up with their moms but are soon confused. The big kids get annoyed with them and bump them around, while their moms are busy taste-testing and doing their little dance.
I picked up the lamb and put my finger in its mouth – cold. She was getting that hunched look—also not a good sign. A lamb needs to nurse to maintain its body heat; if it feels cold, that’s a sure sign it’s not nursing. I tucked her under my arm and carried her over the paddock fence and across the ice to the house as she wailed. A lamb’s cry is loud enough to be heard from a mile away, and has evolved to be heart breaking. After a minute or two in front of the woodstove she quieted down and went to sleep.
I let her warm up and then brought her back out to the barn. Art and I tried to get the ewe and her lamb into the lambing pen. A ewe will hear her lamb crying from inside the pen and will usually follow. But this ewe just stood there, half in, half out.
“She needs hay,” I said.
Then a different ewe, Ewelysses, barged into the pen and sniffed the lamb like it were her own. She went out again, then came back, responding to the lamb’s cry as only a mother ewe should.
“Wait! That’s not her lamb!” Ewelysses was taking a greater interest in the lamb than the lamb’s own mother. Ewelysses moved around restlessly. Then she lay down in a far corner of the barn, leaning against the wall.
“She’s going into labor,” I said. Otherwise, she would not be lying down at mealtime, uninterested in her breakfast.
She got up and ambled into the lambing pen.
She started breathing heavily. She curled her upper lip, making an equine grimace, lifting up her chin. She squirmed and shifted her weight from side to side. She got up, turned in a circle, then lay down again. She began to push, groaning slightly.
I had seen ewes give birth before, and it usually seemed so easy. This time it seemed painful. I looked at Ewelysses’ backside – and saw the lamb’s head and a forepaw emerge.
The ewe continued to strain.
“I need to see the other foot.” I walked around to get a better look. Then Ewelysses stood up. She swung around. The lamb was half emerged now, hanging down between the ewe’s hindlegs, sheathed in an ochre-colored mucus. I could see both forelegs and the head. Ewelysses circled around and around, the lamb swinging from her as in a game of airplane. It was odd—as if the ewe were trying to shake the fetus loose. The lamb’s head knocked against the wall. Then it slipped free, landing on the floor like a slimy fish on dry ground.
Ewelysses immediately went to work licking the lamb clean. The lamb’s head perked up, its eyes opened, and it gave a little cry.
It was very convenient that Ewelysses gave birth right there in the lambing pen.
The only problem was, we needed the pen for the other lamb and her mom. That lamb was still not nursing. She wandered around – all black with splashes of white on her face like spilled milk—a little lost lamb. I saw her wander outside and curl up on the ice to take a nap.
It was a forlorn sight. I picked her up and brought her back inside the house. As I took off my boots, the lamb stumbled – her hooves sliding across the wood floor – into the closet by the front door, where she settled down. She looked up at me and cocked her head, her ears flopped over like a puppy’s ears.
“Not there,” I said, and put her next to the stove.
Meanwhile, Art needed to build a second lambing pen. He went into town to get pallets and eyelets, and quickly constructed a solid new pen. He needed to drag the ewe on her back into the new pen, then righted her onto her side. I put the lamb onto the ewe’s nipple, and she drank. She drank and drank and drank.
Ewelysses, meanwhile, continued to lick clean her lamb. I watched as the yellowish bundle of wool and bones tried to stand up – first straightening out his hindlegs, then pitching forward as he unfolded his forelegs and swiveled around, before collapsing back into the straw.
Ewelysses doted on her lamb. She stood up for it to nurse; when it was lying down, she stood over it and nudged it, insisting that it get up and nurse, like a mother coaxing a child to eat his spinach. Later, when I went out to check on them in the evening, I saw the lamb shivering as it slept beside her; Ewelysses moved closer and pressed her body against him. I saw the lamb climb up onto her back to nest on her fluffy wool fleece. That is how they’ll sleep together during a cold winter night.
Both of the lambs were doing fine. But we worried. Temperatures were expected to fall to twenty-below that night. We had never had new lambs arrive in weather like that. Would they make it through the night?
As farmers, we are not supposed to be sentimental about our animals, but we are.
Particularly about our bottle lambs – those lambs abandoned by their mothers, who we scoop up into our arms and care for like they were our babies. Asterix was a bottle lamb, born to a yearling ewe in April when the sheep were out on pasture and the dandelions and daffodils were in bloom. Sometimes a yearling ewe-mom will take good care of her first born but that is rare.
Asterix – named after the Belgian anti-imperialist comic-strip hero, who belonged to a small insurgent group of Gaulois who resisted the Romans invasions, confounding and defeating Caesar’s legions again and again– became our pet.
Espresso- and- cream colored, he followed us around everywhere, bounded up our front and back steps, and if the door was left open, he would prance right into the house where he would dance around, springing into the air and tapping his little hooves on the floor, his little tail trembling with happiness.
Lambs grow up to be aloof, not-so-cuddly and easily spooked, even the bottle lambs, but Asterix grew up to be a gentle werther, who liked to stand beside us and have his chin scratched like an old Golden Retriever.
We always intended to give him away; it was only after he bumped me a couple of times that we decided it was time. Then one day he rammed me in earnest– he came at me from behind and knocked me halfway across the paddock – where I landed in a pile of shit. Then he backed up to come at me again. And again.
That was it.
That afternoon we offered him as a give-away on Craig’s list and right away we received several responses. Two days later, two large men showed up in a pickup truck to collect him. I had spoken with a woman on the phone, who told me that she and her husband raised goats and that her husband “just liked to watch the animals out on pasture.” I warned her that the ram could be aggressive. Her husband could handle that, she said. When the man showed up I was a bit relieved, as he was a giant of a man who was easily a match for poor old Asterix.
The man lifted Asterix onto the truck single-handedly and sealed him in a plywood box. The other man just watched. Neither of them looked like farmers. They did not ask any questions about the animal they had just adopted; they did not even ask his name. In truth, they acted as if they were taking him straight to the slaughter.
“He will need to be sheared soon,” Art said.
The man looked up at Art. It seemed to me that he had no intention of shearing him, and that the only “soon” for poor Asterix would be the butcher’s knife. I could hear Asterix through the plywood – his hoofs tapping on the cold metal bed of the truck – a new sensation for him – in his agitation.
I had decided that if someone wanted to take Asterix for slaughter then I would accept that. The animal posed a danger. Why else would anyone want him? Ewes can provide mowing services and wool, but without the menace. But that night I had nightmarish thoughts about his journey in the dark cab of the truck, having never been apart from his family and having never known any life but this one – here on these few acres. For Asterix the world was these pastures and the old barn, the shade of the elm tree and the willow, the hum of the road and the chickens.
Every winter, a few of our lambs are slaughtered right here on the farm, so that they never have to go through the trauma of being hauled on the back of a truck and then rough-handled by strangers at the slaughterhouse. Art is there to say goodbye to them. I stay inside the house and do not hear a thing, and when I go outside, I find the flock calmly picking through their hay or chewing their cud, as if nothing out of the ordinary has occurred.
But this, I fear, was not to be the end for poor Asterix.
New from Ewetopia Farm: Needle Felted Animals.
We offer needlefelting kits with all the materials and instructions for making your own fluffy animals. Find us on Fridays at the Richmond Farmers Market.
Yesterday was shearing day. The sheep have all had their haircuts and now they look like a flock of strange goats.
Every year, Jim McCrae and Liz Willis come sometime during the month of May or early June to shear our sheep. I don’t have a lot of experience with this, but Art has seen a number of shearers do their work – none, he says, as expertly as these two.
It was a beautiful day– the first sunny day after days of rain. The lilacs and apple blossoms have passed, the roses are in full bloom, and the grass has already gone to seed. The sheep were corralled in the barn when the shearers arrived. Jim looked them over, counted them, and then said, “I think we’ll do it right in here.” They squeezed through the gate with all their tools, changed into their shearer’s booties, plugged in their electric razors, and went right to work.
We are often asked why we don’t shear our own sheep. The answer is that we have seen it done clumsily. Sheep shearing done by apprentice hands is torture all around – but especially for the animals. It is uncomfortable for them; the only blessing is that it is fast. Or – it should be.
The first time I ever saw it done was in 2005, when Art’s regular shearer showed up on crutches. We knew he was in recovery from cancer treatments – but the crutches were a result of a car accident, not his cancer. He pulled up in a beat-up blue van with his son– a big blond young man in a ball cap, who held his arm to his chest as if it were broken– and a friend whom they’d enlisted to help them out. The son had been knocked over by a ram earlier in the day and hurt his arm, he told us. The old man emerged slowly from the van with his crutches, stood himself upright, then inched his way towards the paddock. He had been completely paralyzed after the accident, he told us. “I’ve been getting my movement back little by little.”
Standing in the paddock, the son lit a cigarette and held it in his left hand while he held his right arm against his chest.
“Go get that one,” he said to the friend, who slipped into the corral and grabbed a ewe by her wool.
“Ride her,” the son said, and the friend climbed onto the ewe’s back and rode her like she were a bucking colt in a rodeo. Then he jumped off her, grabbed one of her legs, and flipped her onto her back. The son wrapped his good arm around her neck and held her against him as he worked the electric razor down her belly with his injured arm. He winced with pain, then stopped.
“You hold her,” he said to his friend. The old man stood by, muttering advice with his head downcast as if he were unable to lift it up. He held himself still as a stone, leaning on his crutches. The ewe writhed and kicked as the friend held her down, while the son made repeated stabs at her with the razor. Finally the ewe settled down, stretched out on her side, while the son winced and clenched his teeth as he worked. When he had finished the one side they turned the ewe onto her other side. The son worked slowly, using his left hand, the wool peeling away and dropping to the ground like wood shavings. After about a half an hour, they released the poor girl, who went limping off towards the corral to join her family, covered with red nicks and gashes.
It took them three hours to shear six ewes. We paid them eighty dollars to split between them for their efforts, and we never saw them again.
The following spring, it was our neighbor, Jennifer Gilligan, who recommended Jim McRae to us, who has been shearing our sheep ever since.
The two of them work side by side, each of them shearing their own ewe. Working in concert, they dove into the flock, who were massed together in the back of the barn, grabbed the first two ewes they could get a hold of, and swiftly, using a few expert Judo moves, had them sitting quietly on their rumps. First, they peel away the belly wool, which is discarded, working carefully around their udders and sensitive parts. Then they cut away the fleece in a single piece, carving it as if it were soft butter. The underside of the fleece is astonishingly clean, soft, and beautiful, piling up in folds like whipped cream.
The sheep sit like humans sit in chairs while they have their haircuts, with their backs upright and their legs in front of them. They look a little stunned as they are forced to sit in a position that they would never get themselves into on their own. They seem helpless and vulnerable, with their pink udders exposed. They don’t like it – they dislike being handled, they are uncomfortable, and they seem spooked by the buzz of the electric razor. But I have a feeling that they like the sensation of the razor against their skin. They love to scratch themselves against trees or fence posts, and for the duration, they are calm – until the razor is switched off and they get their toenails clipped, whereupon they resume kicking and writhing.
It was Liz who sheared our ram – a 275 behemoth– dressed in his big black coat, Oliver has the bulk of a black bear. Liz is probably half his size. Jim looked over his shoulder with his eyebrows raised as she wrassled with him. “You need some help with that guy?” he asked. “I’m good,” she said, calmly. She grabbed him by one leg, twisted his head slightly, and had him down on his rump. He writhed and kicked for a moment or two, then he settled down.
Not everyone likes shearing day as I do. An old-timer interviewed in the Foxfire books says he “despises” sheep shearing. I can see why – he recounts how the sheep were laid out on a table with their feet tied together. Using traditional shears, it took half an hour to shear a single sheep. Recently I talked with a friend who said he and his wife tried their hands at raising sheep. They read books, took workshops, built a barn– it was the shearing that did it for them. “We hated it,” he said.
But I have always liked this rite of spring. It is true, the sheep are not as attractive without their wool: freshly sheared, they look like naked old men, with their knobby knees and their various lumps. In their wool coats, they’re each of them individual and identifiable – Ewelysses and Euphrates, EweTwo and Ewekelele – each of them has a distinctive shape, shade, and personality. But sheared, not even the lambs can recognize their own mothers, and for the rest of the day, they cry out to them like lost orphans. Still, I like to watch the practice of a skill well done, especially a skill as ancient and relatively unchanged as sheep shearing. To witness the magical metamorphosis of nothing but grass into the most useful fiber humans have ever known. I like to watch the sheep step away from their robes as if they were stepping out of the shower, naked to their toes and a touch embarrassed. I love it that we can reap a harvest from our flock without harming them, year after year.
All in all, Jim and Liz sheared ten ewes and Oliver and were finished in less than an hour. They left us with about twenty-five to thirty pounds of wool, which will be scoured, carded, drafted, spun, felted, and woven into sweaters, mittens, hats, scarves, blankets, purses, and novelties, each one of them handmade and unique.
We offer yarn and rovings in three natural colors: white, grey, and dark chocolate. Our sheep are a Border Leicester, Corriedale, and Lincoln cross.
We also have a selection of colors — hand- dyed with Greener Shades organic certified dyes. A selection of our colors is available at the Knitting Studio in Montpelier.
Our Yarn: Light Worsted Weight 2.60 ounce skein (150 yards).
Our yarn is available at the Knitting Studio, 122 Main Street in Montpelier.
And from May-October on Fridays at the Richmond Farmers Market, or contact us for inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org.