The Lamb Switch
An Easter Miracle
By Judith Toth Bigham
It was late March and lambing season was in full swing at Hado-Bar Farm. When I went to the barn early one morning to check the still-pregnant ewes, I saw one of them standing in a dark corner as far away from the other ewes as she could get. She had a preoccupied, pained look on her face. It was obvious she was going into labor. I squinted in the dim light to read the number on her ear-tag. She was “Cypress #50,” a maiden ewe: This would be her first lambing.
I cancelled my plans for that day and prayed that her labor would progress swiftly and end successfully with her safe delivery of twin lambs she was carrying.
Checking Cypress frequently, finally at 9:30 p.m. I saw her having contractions! She was becoming more agitated and anxious as her labor progressed. At last, at 11:30 p.m., she went down on the deeply-bedded floor and began pushing… hard. My pulse quickened as I donned vinyl gloves and eagerly awaited the arrival of the first lamb. And awaited, and awaited.
Excitement gave way to concern. After pushing so hard for so long (over 30 minutes by then), she should’ve produced something! I was entering the pen to attempt to assist the birth when, with a Herculean effort and loud “vocalization,” Cypress gave birth to her first lamb! She jumped to her feet and began to clean and stimulate the newborn, “nickering” non-stop.
Within a few minutes, the lamb was on its feet and tottering toward its first meal. I smiled and breathed a sigh of relief. All was well. Cypress was doing a good job as a first-time mother.
The second lamb in a set of twins usually arrives within minutes of the first, so I waited. And waited. And waited.
It was well after midnight by then and I was getting cold, but I was reluctant to leave for fear that something was wrong. At last, after “fussing” with her firstborn lamb for over an hour, she gave birth to her second lamb. As with her firstborn, Cypress jumped to her feet and looked at her newborn lamb. But instead of welcoming it, she backed away, seemingly shocked and horrified by the sight. The lamb sneezed, shook its head and called for its mother. Cypress answered, but refused to approach the lamb. The newborn continued calling to its mother as it dragged itself through the deep straw toward her. The lamb was strong and healthy, but for some reason Cypress had decided she didn’t want it. She turned and walked away from her newborn with her firstborn lamb at her side.
“Oh, no you don’t!” I said aloud as I walked into the pen. I swiftly but gently scooped the firstborn lamb into my arms and carried it out of the pen. Cypress began searching frantically for her “lost” lamb, calling loudly as she sniffed and searched every corner of the lambing pen. Finally, she ran back to the place where she’d brought forth both of her lambs and followed the “scent trail” to the second-born lamb which was still struggling in the deep straw. She tentatively sniffed the lamb and after several moments of indecision, began to “nicker” softly.
After the second lamb struggled to its feet and found its way to its first meal, I breathed a sigh a relief and returned the firstborn lamb to the pen. Cypress was relieved to have “found” her firstborn lamb, at last! I stayed in the barn until I felt sure Cypress had accepted both lambs as her own. Then, cold and exhausted, I commended Cypress and her lambs to the care of the Good Shepherd, turned off the lights and left the barn. It was 2:30 a.m.
Four days after Cypress had her twins—I named them Chili and China—”Rose #60” (another maiden ewe) successfully (and uneventfully, thank God!) had a beautiful, healthy set of twins. Rose was a good mother; her lambs thrived.
Success Turned Sour
A week after Cypress’ lambs were born, I noticed that they were quite thin and still small, despite my having seen them nursing greedily every time I was in the barn checking. The little lambs looked miserable, so I attempted to feed them a special lamb milk replacement supplement to give them a nutritional “boost.” Despite my best efforts, neither lamb would accept the supplement.
Examination of Cypress and her lambs by a veterinarian revealed that Cypress had not “let down” her milk, so the lambs were slowly starving to death.
The veterinarian too, tried to feed the lambs the supplement formula, but the lambs refused to suck from the bottle. I couldn’t give the lambs to another ewe because, unless there is a mix-up when two or more ewes are having lambs at the same time, a ewe will accept and feed only her own offspring. Without food, Chili and China would surely die.
I trudged slowly back to the house; my prayer a desperate plea to the Good Shepherd for guidance and mercy.
After doing evening chores that day, I stood watching the ewes contentedly munching hay while their lambs (except for Chili and China) romped and raced around in the spacious lambing pen. My heart was heavy as I contemplated the fate of Cypress’ twins.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw China totter toward a ewe whose head was buried in the hay-filled manger. The starving lamb weakly punched the ewe’s udder with her tiny nose in an instinctual effort to signal the release of nourishing milk. The lamb began to nurse.
The ewe pulled her head out of the manger, turned and sniffed the lamb to verify the lamb’s identity. Suddenly, I realized that the ewe “checking-out” China was Rose #60.
China was not her lamb!
I braced myself for the forceful “head-butt” Rose would use to knock China away from her udder. What happened next made me question my sanity as Rose resumed munching hay while China continued to nurse!
I was astonished when Chili too, tottered over to Rose and began to nurse without objection from the ewe! What was happening here? How could Rose raise four lambs?
A moment later, I heard a ewe call her lambs to her for feeding. Two lambs scampered to the ewe, punched her udder forcefully, and began nursing noisily. I watched those lambs nurse, relieved that except for Chili and China, all were well-fed and thriving.
For no particular reason, I checked the number on that contented ewe’s ear-tag: It was #50! Cypress was feeding lambs that were not her own.
Whose lambs were they and why were they nursing a ewe other than their own mother? Why was Cypress allowing lambs other than her own to feed from her?
I looked closely at the lambs pressed against Cypress and realized they were Rose’s thriving twins!
My pulse quickened. What was happening here?
I’d never before witnessed two ewes so completely and calmly “switch” lambs so long after birth (by then, Cypress’ lambs were eight days old; Rose’s were four days old)! Sheep are “hard-wired” by Nature to strongly bond with and nurse only the lambs they give birth to. What had prompted Cypress and Rose to switch lambs?
In the days following The Switch, I watched Cypress and Rose closely for signs of rejection of the lambs that were not their own. But (on Easter Sunday morning) as I watched the lambs—including Chili and China—“ga-boinging” around the lambing pen while their weary mothers munched hay, I realized The Switch was permanent. Rose was, indeed, nursing and nurturing Cypress’ twins while Rose’s lambs continued to thrive in the care of their adopted mother, Cypress.
Without Rose’s intervention, Chili and China would have died. I pondered God’s mysterious ways, as I watched the ewes and lambs. Surely, our Good Shepherd had heard my desperate prayer for those starving lambs (as well as for myself) and answered with an Easter miracle that saved us all!
Ms. Bigham operates a herding dog training facility in Nova, Ohio, for which the website is: HadobarFarm.com.