Lost Lamb

Normally, walking through our eastern woodland calms me, brings up almost uncontainable waves of gratitude. The woodlands surrounding and weaving through our farm are ancient, noted down on the earliest maps we can find of the area, and walking through them feels like connecting to something deep and rich. The patch I’m walking through is mostly deciduous, and at this time of year the shades of green are like a painter’s pallet. It’s a little more civilized here, too, than in our other, pine dominant patches – our early efforts to stack some of the deadfall, and the lack of old abandoned fencing makes it easier to wander through with only a passing amount of attention to where I’m placing my feet. We know now, seven years after taking over the farm, that leaving deadfall to rot into the ground is a good thing, so we don’t stack as much anymore, except for the wood meant to age for the stove. In any case, we have too many other tasks these days to spare the time for much stacking, so I always have to be alert when walking in the other woods. The stacks in this patch are six and seven years old now; they’ve become wildlife habitat – or so we call them and every other pile of ‘we’ll get to this later’ that lies for more than two years. I love this patch of woodland, and know how lucky we are that it still exists while so much around us has been turned into timber plantations. We both know how lucky we are to be caretakers for it.

Today though, worry replaces the calm as I peer into every shadow, under every prickly gorse bush. And while I normally enjoy the wind singing through the tree tops, today I beg it to die down a little, so I can listen for the bleating of a lost or stuck lamb.

It’s that time of year. The ewes and their lambs have left the lambing fields, and come out into the part of the farm we call the Gallimaufry – a jumbled mix of woodland, meadow, the bracken covered ‘mesa’, and a section of the farm’s main ditch, which we’re allowing to spread into mini ponds along some of its length. These sheep left the lambing fields two days ago, and the first days are the most worrisome, with the young lambs unused to the ditches, rocks, and gorse patches that weave through this part of the farm. There are lots of places for a young lamb to get hurt or lost – and we’ve experience with a number of them. So, Donald counts them every morning in these early days, while they’re still sticking close to their mothers’ sides. He continues feeding the mums a bit in the morning, and counts them while everyone has their head in the trough… Yesterday, day one, he had all 44 lambs accounted for. Today, he counted 43.

We don’t usually worry (as much) if there are multiple animals missing at the count. Small groups will often split off from the main, to go exploring or napping on their own. But if just one is missing, it seldom ends well. The lost lamb, the weakened mother, the old ewe looking for a quiet spot to take one last nap.

On our farm, Donald does the morning rounds, feeding, watering, checking up on our two flocks of sheep (male and female) and our pigs. Feeding has stopped for the non-breeding ewes and the males, now that the grass has started growing. But he’ll feed the mums for a few more days, so the move doesn’t turn them wild right away, and they keep coming to him. It makes the count easier, and lets him hand feed a few of the older girls, or the mums who had difficult lambings, feeling their backs to check their condition, just watching for a while. Like shepherds of hold, we both spend lots of time watching them, to make sure they’re all acting normal and healthy. He generally handles the morning feeding for the animals, while I handle the evening feeding for the humans. We trade off on the afternoon feeding for the pigs, depending on our other work commitments, we share responsibility for the new arrivals, our Scots Dumpy chickens, and it’s ‘all hands on deck’ for the big events like harvest or foot checks.  A division of labour that works for us and our farm.

I’ll often catch glimpses of him from one of the farmhouse windows, as I go about my morning tasks indoors, and he goes about his rounds outdoors. Walking or in his tractor, always in that big yellow jacket. I have his routine ingrained in my bones as much as either of us have the sheep’s habits stored there. And today, he was spending a little too much time checking the ditches. More time than he usually takes when he adds a drainage pipe check onto his routine. So I called him. Watching in the distance through the window, as he pulled his phone out, connected his hearing device, and answered it. Yes, he was short a lamb.

So on went my loved/hated all-weather, all-terrain flexothane overalls – which aren’t so all-weather anymore, thanks to climbing over the old barbed wire fencing we both hate – and I joined him in the Gallimaufry. We’ve spent the past two hours searching every shadowy nook, peering into old fox  holes – every hole looks like a fox hole, when you’re looking for a lamb – sloshing through the bog, crawling as far as we could into the stabbing gorse. This is the downside to farming the way we do, eschewing neat fields for ancient wood- and wetlands: there are so many, many ways a lamb can get lost or dead. Now I’m walking through our beloved woods, checking the last bits of the Gallimaufry, shushing the wind.

Next we’ll try to count the sheep again. Multiple times: 44, 44, 43, 44, and a couple of failed counts while the lambs dash around. There is no bleating, no desperate mum, and no sounds of weak little lamb bleats. We’re soaked through with sweat and the rain showers that are flying through the glen. It’s time to trust the count that said ‘44’, and go home. Time to assume that all are here, that one had been sleeping in the sun somewhere, when the rest were greedily nosing in the troughs and being counted. We need to care for our animals, yes, but also for ourselves. And we need a hot drink.

These are the moments I wonder if it would be better to push the farm’s wilderness areas back just a little more. But these moments are brief. Because even this morning, worry stealing my calm as I walk through the woods, I still notice the pallet of greens, I still wondered at the life filling the bog as I splashed through its puddles, still felt a bit of wonder as I peered into an old, spiderweb covered cubbyhole, or saw how the old, downed pine is becoming covered in mosses. These are precious things, and do not lose their value because we’ve lost a lamb. My worry will go, hopefully at tomorrow’s morning count, certainly as the lambs grow larger and become competent at navigating their new surroundings. There will be another day, when I walk through these woods again, while the gratitude wells and the calm settles. Those days, those stretches of calm, are worth these two hours of seeking and crawling through the brush. They are worth just about everything. Even a lost lamb.

Photo by Jane Firth

[note: This post is about yesterday. This morning, there were 44.]

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