Saltmarsh Soay Sheep Adoption Agency: another way to avoid bottle babies

Clarification: two of the smartest people I know read this post and did not understand what is necessary to make a graft/adoption work when Ewe A has lost a lamb and Ewe B is rejecting her lamb. Ewe A will only adopt Ewe B’s lamb if it smells like Ewe A’s dead lamb. You can make the adoptee smell right only if you have birth fluids/placenta from Ewe A, and not from just any ewe. I hope this makes sense now.

As promised, the report of our second successful attempt this season to avoid a bottle baby. This time, the birth mother did not reject her baby; it just could not compete with its huge, greedy twin.

The saga began 10 days ago, Wednesday, April 17, at about 2:00 pm. Our six-year old ewe Reeth delivered a medium-sized piebald ewe lamb, and then the smallest lamb we have ever had, a ram lamb weighing only 1 pound 13 ounces at birth. The piebald ewe lamb immediately grabbed all the colostrum she could find and kept right on eating. Although the tiny ram was a bit premature (his hoove tips were white), he was vigorous and we assumed he would compete for milk

Just to be on the safe side, Steve and Shawn gave him 1 cc of Baby Lamb Strength (a molasses-like product that is mostly fat and that can give a struggling lamb a quick jump-start). Steve also had to open one of Reeth’s nipples and he got out 10 cc of unusually thick, rich colostrum. He and Shawn gave the ram lamb, already named Tiny Tim, 1 cc of the colostrum, diluted the rest with Reeth’s milk and some milk from another nursing ewe, and tubed Tiny Tim with this rich concoction. A little while later, they gave him 10 more cc of the other ewe’s milk using the standard bottle baby technique, a Pritchard teat on a small bottle. Tiny Tim gulped it.

Here’s a picture taken late afternoon that first day. As you can see, Big Sister is just that – big – but Tiny Tim is perfectly alert and ready to have a go at life:

Soay lamb twins Tiny Tim and Big Sister

Soay lamb twins Tiny Tim and Big Sister

By 6:00 pm. Tiny Tim was bawling, obviously not getting enough to eat, so we removed Big Sister to the adjacent jug, thinking we would give him solo access to Reeth. Even though I managed to get him to take a little milk by guiding him, we were concerned about whether he could even reach the nipple, let alone compete with Big Sister. But Reeth was not rejecting him, so we put Big Sis back in the jug and left all three of them while we went inside for a quick supper.

At 7:30 pm, we went back out to work the lambs. Tiny Tim still seemed vigorous, but he only weighed 1 lb 11 oz, not a good sign. Big Sister, by the way, weighed in at a robust 4 pounds 6 ounces. We were not sure what else to do, so we crossed our fingers and went back inside.

By the time Steve went back out at 11:00 pm to check for new lambs, Tiny Tim was fussing, but when Steve took his temperature and felt his warm belly, he appeared to have eaten. To be on the safe side, Steve brought over a vial of frozen milk we had stored from a ewe who last year had way more milk than her lamb would eat, so we stockpiled it. Steve figured we should have a small amount of milk handy in case Tiny Tim did not turn the corner.

At 3:00 am when Shawn went out for lamb check, Tiny Tim was squalling again so Shawn fed him about 10 cc of the unfrozen stored miilk.

Throughout the next day, Thursday, April 18, one or the other of us would give Tiny Tim another 10 cc of milk when he made a big fuss, far less than he demanded, but we wanted him to have just enough supplement to give him the strength (he clearly had the motivation!) to compete for Reeth’s milk so he could remain with her.

By late that second afternoon, we decided we should re-weigh the twins. Big Sister weighed 4 pounds 8 ounces, a gain of 2 ounces in 24 hours. No wonder there was no milk left for Tiny Tim! By comparison, he weighed only 1 pound 9 ounces and obviously was going down hill. Still, we hoped with just a little more time he might make it on his own, so again we left him with Big Sister and Reeth overnight.

Dawn on day three, Friday morning, April 19. Steve went over to check for lambs and check on Tiny Tim. He was not in good shape, still not getting enough to eat. And more ominously, he had quit squalling, a sign that he was giving up. But Steve had no time to think about him because another of our ewes, Lindsey, was in the process of delivering a lamb that was barely alive when it was born. It was severely deformed, with no eyes and possible other issues we could not see. Lindsey’s lamb did not respond to any kind of stimulus (tickling her nose with straw, rubbing her) so Steve let it go peacefully and radioed the sad news to me.

As soon as I got there and saw Lindsey in a jug calling to her dying lamb, I said to Steve, “are you willing to take a big chance that might save Tiny Tim?” “How so?” he asked. I reminded Steve that I had seen Shawn re-unite a wandering lamb with its mother just the day before. “You take the dying baby and rub its fluids all over Tiny Tim and see if Lindsey will take him,” I urged, “while I go see if Lindsey’s placenta or a puddle of birth fluids is out in the Maternity Ward birthing area so we can use that stuff, too.” We knew that if we failed, Tiny Tim’s birth mother, Reeth, would reject him permanently, no questions asked. But since Tiny Tim was failing anyway, Steve readily agreed to take that chance. Thank goodness I had just seen this fairly yucky process work perfectly the day before, or I might have balked at purposefully creating an orphan. We donned our blue gloves and with that, the Saltmarsh Ranch Adoption Agency opened for business.

Ready for the results? We were lucky that Lindsey was the only ewe to lamb that morning, so we knew for sure that the placenta I found was her lamb’s. Once we slathered Tiny Tim with all the guck and fluids, Steve gingerly put him down in the jug with Lindsey. In took her approximately one tenth of a nanosecond before she started gurgling again and began furiously licking him off. We could barely contain our excitement, but we did not want to spook this nascent adoption so we tiptoed out of the nursery area before doing a couple of robust high-fives! We had utterly fooled Lindsey and Tiny Tim could not believe his good fortune at not having to share the dinner table with Big Sister any more. Our first successful placement!

Our roles over with, we quickly completed the paperwork – one notation on Lindsey’s lambing card and one on Reeth’s lambing card – and turned our attention to more mundane matters like feeding the dogs, letting the sheep out onto our lush spring pastures, the daily routines that are so pleasing for shepherds at lambing time.

Here’s another picture of the twins, this one taken by our friend Leigh on Saturday April 20 when she and Rick arrived for their annual Visitation to the Flock for lamb-viewing.

Tiny Tim and Big Sister age 3 days

Tiny Tim and Big Sister age 3 days

I can’t decide whether I think Tiny Tim really looks bigger or whether I am just a hopeless optimist. Tell you what, let’s let the data decide (you didn’t really think I would be allowed to publish this post without data, did you?)

Here’s how Tiny Tim has fared since Lindsey adopted him. First of all, she has voiced no objection to his name, so for now at least, he remains Tiny Tim. And that’s appropriate because even our lambs – all of whom are strong, good looking and way above average – cannot catch up overnight. Remember this little guy started out at 1 lb 13 oz and at one point dropped to 1 lb 9 oz. But not for long.

After a full day with Lindsey, Tiny Tim’s temperature on April 19th was 103.4, the most reliable sign that he finally was getting plenty to eat – a little furry combustion engine burning fuel like crazy. And he weighed 1 lb 13 oz, so he had turned the corner. Here’s his growth chart for the next few days:

Saturday April 20 a respectable 1 lb 15 oz., nice uptick
Monday, April 22 only 1 lb 14 oz, not sure why the little dip, probably the error factor of weighing a recovering lamb finally hitting his wiggle, uh, stride
Tuesday April 23 a whopping 2 lb, 8 oz, clearly on the right track
Friday, April 26 approaching a 100% weight gain, 2 lb 12 oz

If we had our druthers, the Saltmarsh Soay Sheep Adoption Agency would of course never have another client, but if need be, we are ready to try it again.

As for Tiny Tim, if history on our farm and this blog is any guide, there will be updates on his progress. All in good time.

For now …