Premature Soay lamb survives … and thrives

Once again our heritage sheep have confirmed the legendary hardiness of Soay.

Pregnant Isabella

Pregnant Isabella

It was March 28, 2014, a full five days before our first lamb of the year “could” arrive according to the 148 days universally accepted as the length of sheep gestation, and at least 8 or 10 days before we expected the first lamb based on past years’ experience. Our pregnant ewes were outside the maternity ward having one last day on scraggly winter grass before their sequestration began. Rain was not forecast, but mid-afternoon it started drizzling and turned surprisingly cold all of a sudden, with snow in the foothills above us. When Steve went out to start afternoon chores, he found Isabella, one of our oldest ewes, standing next to a shivering, miniature wet lamb. Impossible!

We guessed the lamb had been out for about 3 hours. His temperature was well below 100 degrees, so Steve immediately gave him some Baby Lamb Strength to try to warm him up quickly. To our surprise, the little fellow had a lot of spunk, so we left him to nurse in his dry comfy jug with Isabella. Two hours later, his temperature had reached 101, thanks to the BLS, and he was still vigorous, but to our great consternation, he could not stand up at all, or even get up on his knees. His skeletal structure or ligaments or both were so premature they simply could not support him. Despite his obvious desire to eat and live, he could not reach Isabella’s teats.

Worse yet, the clock was running on getting colostrum to him. We could keep feeding him BLS, but he needed the essential goodies in colostrum to boost his immunity and all the other components of colostrum that lambs must have to be healthy adults. We also had no idea whether his bones and ligaments would firm up quickly enough for him to survive. Every couple of hours through that first evening Steve milked out Isabella’s colostrum and tube fed the tiny lamb. At midnight, we reluctantly concluded we had to stop and get some sleep. The hard truth was that the lamb needed to be able, literally, to stand on his own four feet. As things looked that night, the lamb was obviously way premature and despite six hours of active intervention, he still had no function in his legs.

The next morning we went out expecting to find him dead, but no, the lamb was still alive. Unlike lambs who fail to thrive and die within a day or two, this chap was doing his part and still trying to get to Isabella’s milk, but his legs still failed him. Newborn lambs’ legs are floppy and unsteady enough after a full term pregnancy, but something about our preemie’s legs simply was not formed sufficiently to support him. We debated whether to let him go, but decided “okay, if you are going to fight, we will, too.” After one or two more tube feedings, we retreated to other tasks, satisfied we had given it a good try.

That afternoon, we were amazed and delighted to find the lamb with a full belly, good temperature, sort of on his feet, and to all appearances out of the woods. Somehow his bones or ligaments had firmed up enough for him to stand and he was getting nourishment on his own for the first time. Better yet, he was raring to go, with a temperature of 101.8F. He weighed just 2 pounds 10 ounces even after all those meals, scary small, but not impossible. From then on he has never considered himself a preemie or a runt. Admittedly, he had to spend a few days alone in the nursery with Isabella but no lamb buddies to cavort with, since the next lamb was not born, much less ready for the nursery, for another 12 days. As near as we can tell, mandatory solitude allowed SMR 641 to concentrate on eating and growing, and grow he did.

SMR 641 at seven weeks

Premature Soay lamb catches up

As for how SMR 641 is doing at this point, when we gave him his first Covexin and worming at 7 weeks (thinking we needed to give him a little extra time), he weighed a whopping 18 and 1/2 pounds, well within the normal range for a six-week old British Soay lamb.

One word keeps coming to mind about this lamb — “gumption.” The reason he lived, despite the daunting obstacle of non-functioning legs, was his powerful instinct to live. Except for his legs, he was far enough along in his development to make it. If only I had a EweTube of his first hours compared to one of our weak lambs who just never had that gumption.

Premature Soay lamb robust at 8 weeks

Can you believe the robust lamb in front was seriously premature?

One week later I happened to catch SMR 641 on camera enjoying his first meals of pasture grass. To our eyes, and the photographic evidence confirms it, this lamb’s too-early start in life is just an interesting data point by now. And yes, he will have a proper name one of these days, as soon as we figure out the 2014 naming theme.

For now …