Winter on a farm is an amazing time. Things are quiet. Everything feels internal. There is mystery, and with the mystery, a touch of anxiety, a shade of wondering if all that is unseen right now will become seen, all we hope for will be confirmed. Most pressing of these anxieties for me has been the question: Are the ewes pregnant? Is that just a full rumen, or are their bellies swelling with lambs? Is all the work of the past year going to pay off? Now, as the days lengthen, all those internal questions are being slowly answered, all the internal mystery is slowly making an external presence known: the ewes are dropping their udders. This happy news has had its other signs as well. Three of our ewes have made the interior exterior in a more literal way. About two weeks ago, Ross called over to me that a ewe was in labor. We were alarmed since this baby seemed to be coming about a month early. She lay down, grunting, and red protruding out of her hind-end. We started to monitor her very closely and prepared ourselves for all that could come with a premie lamb, very little of it good. But when we looked in on her an hour later, labor seemed to have stopped completely. This was a relief, however, we began to notice that every time this ewe lay down, more and more red was visible on her backside. By the next morning, it was clear that this ewe had a vaginal prolapse. For folks unfamiliar with livestock, this is a condition where prior to birth, and sometimes during birth, the vagina pops out of the body. This sounds a lot worse than it is. While it can be life-threatening if untreated, it is highly treatable. You just pop it back in and use something to apply a bit of pressure to the area to hold it in until the lamb is born. There's a neat little device called a prolapse retainer or "ewe spoon" that is gently inserted once you put everything back in and you tie it to the wool.
It took us two tries to get it right. It happened that we had two of our friends visiting that day, both of whom were EMT's, which was handy. But no sooner did we get the first ewe put back together then we noticed a second ewe beginning to have the same problem. What was going on? We hit the books and called a few shepherd friends. There is some indication that vaginal prolapse is a nutritional problem, so we immediately increased their regular alfalfa and hay rations and added a bit of whole corn. In the meantime, Ross called on our farmer friend Tim to help catch and repair the second ewe. Her prolapse was worse. It actually looks like the sphincter itself had torn, so retaining the prolapse was highly challenging, especially considering that this girl was a Katadhin, and had no wool to tie anything on to. We ordered a prolapse harness that is designed for this very situation, but it hadn't arrived yet and we had to create a makeshift one in the interim. We called a vet, who suggested suturing her vagina closed, but the major problem with this is that you have to monitor the ewe extremely closely to cut the suture the moment she goes into labor, otherwise the lamb will not be able to get out and both could die. There is also the risk of further damaging the tissue through the suturing itself. We decided that we had her in a stable situation. Highly imperfect, but stable, and we didn't want to further stress or harm her. Finally, we had a third prolapse, just a day ago, this time it was another Katadhin from the same genetic group as the first, which is leading us to believe that the problem may be genetic rather than nutritional. Ross and I spent about an hour catching her, cleaning the tissue, and outfitting her with a proper prolapse harness. By now, we had the process down. I held her on her side, gently holding her legs up to keep her hind-end off the ground with her limp, submissive head in my lap while Ross gently picked off bits of hay, washed of the general filth, and gently pushed the prolapse back inside.
While we were caring for this ewe, we heard a flock of Sandhill Cranes nearby. We looked up, but did not see them right away. Then they suddenly appeared, high above in their characteristic wonky-V formation, making their way northward towards their nesting grounds in Ohio and Indiana. I thought about how these birds fly right over Atlanta every year, totally unbeknownst to the city-dwellers below. I thought how grateful I am for the work I get to do. As I sat in wet, fresh sheep dung, with my husband's gloved hands bloodied by being inside a sheep, I felt so grateful for the opportunity to be quiet and attentive to the world. If you're listening and looking, the mystery is revealed and the anxiety is lifted. Spring is coming.