My plan all along has been to develop a flock that can lamb on pasture with little or no help from me. Aside from the naturalistic appeal of sheep giving birth outdoors, Bill Fosher has convinced me that it’s the most efficient way to raise sheep: no need for a huge barn to house winter lambing, and no need for a huge labor force to tend to all the sheep indoors. And if the timing is right, lambs will get all their sustenance from mother’s milk and fresh-grazed pasture plants — no hay or grain.
Everything that’s happened on the farm so far has felt like a warm-up exercise, but today the real show started. I put a ram in with my flock on 8 December last year, and with an average gestation period of 147 days, I was expecting lambs to start coming some time this week. This morning (day 144) I noticed one of the ewes off by herself and figured she was probably thinking about lambing some time soon, but when I walked around her, I saw that she was cradling a lamb against her body, out of sight of the rest of the flock.
When I got a little closer, the new born ewe lamb popped up on her feet, and by evening was running fast enough that I almost couldn’t catch her.
My border cheviot ram, known for producing small, vigorous lambs, had done his job, and the mother was doing hers, fussing attentively over her little one. Now I need the grass to do its part. For pasture lambing to work well, the sheep need enough room to find a private spot to give birth; if the sheep are crowded, then lamb and ewe might not have a chance to bond with one another before another ewe tries to steal the lamb. With indoor lambing, the ewe and lambs go into a jug for a few days until the bonding happens, but on pasture, the ewes need to sort it out for themselves. The sacrificial area of the pasture where the pregnant ewes are hanging out is really too small for adequate privacy, but I’ve been hoping that the grass in the rest of the paddock would be ready by the time the lambs started dropping. I’ll see what happens tomorrow morning… if the newborns start coming at a steady clip, I’ll have to let the sheep into the bigger area whether grass is ready or not.
In honor of my first farm-sired and pasture-born lamb, Bill sent me some verse:
“Let them prosper, the dams and their sucklings.
Let nothing inhibit their heedless growing.
Let them raise up on sturdy pasterns
and trot out in light summer rain
onto the long lazy unfenced fields
— Maxine Kumin, from Praise Be.