A Soay sheep lambing crisis with a mostly happy outcome

During an otherwise calm start to lambing, we were hit with a stark reminder that no matter how self-reliant our Soay sheep may be, we still must be prepared to intervene when, rarely, the need arises.  This story takes a while to relate.  Please bear with me.

Setting the stage: virtually every description of Soay sheep includes a variant of “Soay are hardy little sheep and the ewes lamb easily, without assistance.” It is the mantra of Soay breeders and it is true – almost always. At the same time, we vacillate between feeling like total bumblers at hands-on husbandry and congratulating ourselves on being quite the sheep sophisticates. Over the last several days, our self-confidence has been put to the test.

The saga began on Monday morning, right in the middle of our first wave of lambs arriving in a bunch because they had been conceived simultaneously using artificial insemination.  All morning our ewe Tolcarne seemed fussy, getting up and down more than usual, responding to the bleats of newborn lambs in nearby jugs. Even without these very early signs, we expected Tolcarne to lamb that day, 150 days after she had been inseminated. Although she is one of our smaller ewes, she clearly carried twins: the sheer size of her side-saddles and her ungainly walk – the byproduct of a huge bag – telegraphed “TWO ON THE WAY.”

Steve elected to stay and watch the proceedings from a lawn chair strategically placed a comfortable distance away from Tolcarne.  [Author’s note: in truth, he chose his location so he could bask in the warm spring sunshine and snooze].  For the next couple of hours, Tolcarne continued her uneasy up-and-down behavior, not frantic, but clearly restless, not yet kicking, but pawing the ground and “nesting.” In retrospect, she was taking a long time to get down to business, but Steve had witnessed other long preludes like this one and didn’t think much of it. He was enjoying a quiet afternoon with his flock.

By late afternoon, Tolcarne had advanced into the preliminaries to labor, while her uterus was working to line up the lambs in preparation for birth. When she was down, she began the tell-tale side kicks with her back leg; she began licking the air as her body told her to get ready to clean off her lambs. She continued to get up to visit the feeder occasionally, then lie calmly chewing her cud.

It was well into the evening when Tolcarne all of a sudden produced a series of mighty heaves, hard and obviously painful contractions with a lot of straining and groans.  What she managed to squeeze out was an unusually large, turgid bag (cantaloupe sized).  When it ruptured, releasing all the fluid, there was no lamb in it.  Nonetheless, by that time, both of us had watched her intently for so long that we also heaved a sigh of relief, thinking the lamb’s arrival was imminent. But within a few minutes, a scenario unfolded that was unlike anything before in all the previous lambings – well over 100 – on our farm.

For starters, we saw nothing in the birth canal – no little hooves, no nose, or any other part of a lamb. That seemed odd; neither of us remembers a birth in which a lamb body part was not visible immediately after the ewe expelled the bag of amniotic fluid. Even odder, Tolcarne roused herself and started licking up the birth fluids frantically, just as any birthing ewe would do, except this time there was no baby on the ground. She started calling for her lamb in the distinctive sound each ewe makes and which creates one of the strongest bonds between a lamb and its mother – the ewe’s unique gurgle and the lamb’s unique answering “baa.”

We were stumped, but it sure looked to us as though Tolcarne believed she had already lambed. Either her hormones, or her muscles, or the absence of a lamb in the birth canal, told her a lamb was out there somewhere and she should tend to it. But then she lay back down and kicked again, more weakly now, but each time we assumed a lamb would appear. What we did not fully appreciate at the time was the fact that the clock was now ticking on the lamb’s ability to survive without the protection of its bag of amniotic fluid. What stuck in our minds from our past experience, and what we remembered reading, was to let Tolcarne finish her work; don’t interfere; rely on the legendary self-reliance of Soay ewes.

We accepted the “don’t interfere” caution so uncritically, and it has worked so perfectly for us through so many lambings, that it was not until about an hour later that the realization hit: Tolcarne might be in trouble, might not be able to deliver her lambs successfully, and might not even survive herself.

By this time it was late at night and we were left with no alternative but to wait until morning for professional help. Frankly, it did not occur to us that we should go ahead and intervene manually ourselves right then and there. We have always understood that human hands are simply too big to get inside (as would be standard procedure for a stuck calf, for example) the diminutive Soay ewes to ascertain what is going on and assist the ewe. And besides, neither of us has any experience with other livestock births – cattle or horses – where we might have watched a veterinarian extract a stuck newborn.

Steve managed to get Tolcarne into a jug on the off-chance she might still lamb and to give her a bit of security and warmth on a windy March night. Despite our faint hope of an overnight lambing, in what was left of our rational minds at that point we sensed that in the morning we would face grim alternatives: Tolcarne would be dead, or she would have to endure an emergency C-section to extract her dead lambs. Even if she lived, would she be sterile, or unable to bear a lamb, for the rest of her life?

Readers who raise commercial sheep or other livestock may be shaking their heads at our ignorance, and of course in retrospect we are red-faced at the gaps in our knowledge. But consider the numbers on the ease with which Soay ewes give birth. Over 160 Soay lambs had been born on our farm alone at that point, with not a single ewe unable to lamb by herself. We have had a few stillborns, but every single lamb has come out successfully without human intervention and without damage to the ewe.  The possibility that Tolcarne could not lamb by herself had not sunk in until it was too late.

Dawn finally arrived on Tuesday after a predictably restless night.  Our first good news? Tolcarne was alive, lying down, and still kicking from time to time, but just barely. With the clinic alerted to expect us, we used the hour-long trip to ponder Tolcarne’s fate. Would the veterinarian have to perform a C-section?  Could the vet assist Tolcarne with a “normal” delivery of the dead lambs?   Either way, if we were told that Tolcarne would for certain be sterile or unable to lamb in the future, what then?  We are fortunate to have two experienced large animal veterinarians in practice together, both knowledgeable about sheep, and one of whom is a small woman with tiny hands who has worked with sheep all her life.  Our only source of optimism during the triip was  knowing that if anyone could save Tolcarne, it would be these two pros.

Once we arrived at the clinic, there was no more waiting around and watching Tolcarne. The crew was ready for action. We eased Tolcarne into a large room covered with rubber mats that ordinarily serves as the horse and llama examining/post-op quarters in the back of the clinic. The “operating table” consisted of clean old terry cloth towels spread out behind Tolcarne. One vet cleaned off Tolcarne’s rear end and set out the soapy water and supplies, and then our sheep vet dropped to her knees, quickly put on one of those shoulder-length obstetric gloves, well slathered, and with barely a “hello,” set to work. Her unusually small hands were just the equipment she needed.  To our amazement, she was able to ease her hand all the way past the cervix and into Tolcarne’s uterus.

She spoke calmly as she worked with her eyes closed so she could focus, as she explained to us, on what she found, with no visual distractions or preconceptions. Tolcarne’s cervix was dilated, but instead of hooves in the birth canal, there was a lamb’s hip – a classic breech presentation where the birth came to a halt with the lamb wedged the wrong way. She methodically worked her way around this lamb’s body, cataloguing the parts aloud to us as she explored with her fingers, gently easing the lamb back in far enough to give her room to reposition the lamb’s legs. I have to say that despite the vet’s quiet manner, the cries Tolcarne emitted were awful, simply horrifying. At that moment, we knew for certain this was our first “problem” birth. Tolcarne’s wailing was unlike anything we have ever heard from our flock at any time for any reason.

Still working with her eyes closed and by feel, the vet lined up one leg, then the other, and out slipped the lamb – quite large, a ewe, obviously dead. There already was infection that would need to be addressed.  She also confirmed that the lamb was so wedged, there was no way Tolcarne could have gotten it out, and eventually would have died trying.

I am not going to be able to convey adequately the drama of the next few minutes, but let me try to articulate it as best I can. The vet put the dead lamb aside and then eased her hand back in Tolcarne to check for another lamb – normal procedure and also we were quite emphatic about Tolcarne carrying twins. Sure enough, she found a second lamb back up behind where the first lamb had been wedged.  This second lamb was in a normal position and ready to be delivered if Tolcarne had had any strength left. Instead, the vet pulled the second lamb out, front feet first, and laid it aside with the first lamb. The second lamb was enclosed in its sac, limp, a dull grey color, and completely motionless. Given the circumstances, we assumed it too was dead.

Now, at last, Steve’s lifetime devoted to matters biological served us well. As he knelt cradling Tolcarne’s head, he noticed a little glint of light in the slimy membrane just behind the second lamb’s front left leg, its armpit as it were, and where its heart would be right below the surface.  Just as the vet turned back to continue working on Tolcarne, the glint moved. Steve nearly shouted, “There’s a pulse,” at which point the vet scooped up the lamb, pulling membranes off the lamb’s nose as she flew out of the room. In the blink of an eye she had cleared off its nose, suctioned out its air passages, and given it a puff of oxygen.  She left the lamb with her techs and came back in less than a minute to report, “We have a live ram lamb.” Steve and I were dumbfounded and so completely unprepared for a live lamb that we could only sit there in stunned silence in the chilly horse/llama room, trying to process it all and deal with the emotional seesaw.

Chapter three: back in went the vet’s hand to see if there were any tears in Tolcarne’s uterus, which would not have been surprising given the circumstances. Those little hooves are sharp, and each movement to position them risks a scrape or a tear. Before we could catch our breaths or get our bearings, she announced, “There’s a third lamb in here.” Out it came, easy as can be, and miracle of miracles, it too was alive in its amniotic sac and struggling for its first breath. Once again, the vet expertly picked it up by its back legs to provoke the life-giving “baa” and swept out of the room.

Can you imagine this scene? There lay Tolcarne, beyond the point of exhaustion from her nearly 24 hours of internal struggle, lying in a large pool of cold bloody liquid, in an unfamiliar place, with no clue what was happening to her, and her shepherds expecting the worst and no doubt giving off unmistakable signals of doom.

But what should we have expected? Soay sheep are hardy, Soay are easy lambers, etc. etc. Tolcarne is living proof. Before the vet completed her final examination for uterine damage, a beaming tech returned with two dried-off, breathing, tiny little gangly lambs, one in each hand, a ewe and a ram. She gently placed both of them down near Tolcarne’s swollen udder.

At this point, our list of “lessons learned” grew even longer when we watched how the vet persuaded the two little weak lambs to take their first, critical drink of colostrum. Instead of holding them by their heads and basically forcing their mouths onto the teat, as we have tried a number of times, she held the lamb by its shoulders with a thumb tucked under its left front leg and her little finger hooked behind its right front leg. When the lamb’s mouth approached target, she ever so gently nudged its nose from side to side until the teat touched the lamb’s cheek and then slid into its mouth from the side. Now why hadn’t we thought of that?

All that was left from the vet’s perspective was to flush out Tolcarne’s uterus with a saline solution to expel as much of the infection as possible, administer shots of banamine for pain and oxytocin to help expel the placentas, and instruct us to give Tolcarne a 5-day regimen of long-acting penicillin at home. For the vet, it was all in an early morning’s work. She and her techs left us there and went back into the clinic to tend to their other patients who had been put on hold while the vet worked her magic on Tolcarne and Tolcarne worked her own brand of magic.

Meanwhile, the numb shepherds, heads spinning, stayed in the horse/llama room until the lambs had had several trips to the milk faucets. Not surprisingly, they were weak after being crammed into Tolcarne’s small womb, enduring all the chaos of having their ill-fated sister pulled out, and being forced to grow up faster than normal.  Typically, a new lamb scrambles around in the straw for up to a half hour or more before finding its way to the ewe’s udder and successfully attaching its hungry little mouth. The lamb must get itself up on its legs, in fact, to reach the bag. But not these lambs – they were put on the teat lying down within about 5 minutes of birth; they were both still very wobbly; and in any case Tolcarne was too weak to stand and perform the normal nudging and licking ritual to get the lamb up on its feet and back to the udder.

After the mistakes we had made in handling the emergency to that point, it was a relief to call on one aspect of our flock management style that turned out to be important to the final, successful chapter of Tolcarne’s lambing. Because Steve spends a lot of time walking among our ewes and handles them gently when he works them, he was able to sit right next to Tolcarne throughout. Tolcarne’s comfort level with Steve hovering so close allowed him to place each lamb right at her nose so she could smell it, weakly lick it, “talk” to it, and start the essential bonding process. Ordinarily, we use care not to touch a newborn with our bare hands lest we interfere with the critical olfactory bonding process, but in this case, both lambs of necessity had been handled by at least two different pairs of human hands before Tolcarne first smelled them. We feared, of course, that Tolcarne would reject these two strangers and we had little confidence at that point in our own ability to bottle-feed the two tiny weak lambs back to health and vigor.

Once again, Tolcarne rose to the occasion, figuratively speaking. She did everything she was supposed to do, except that she was lying down and clearly feeling pretty well beat up. When we heard her first faint gurgling, we at last felt safe in hoping she would be all right. With milk in them, the lambs got up, staggered around checking out their surroundings, and pretty soon each dutifully squatted to pee a pint-sized “quart.” At that point, we knew they were ready to head home.

It is now Friday afternoon and we can report that mother and lambs are doing just fine in their clean private jug. Both lambs found their legs and nurse vigorously. Their temperatures are above 102°F, well within normal limits. Tolcarne’s digestive system is somewhat out of whack from the effects of the penicillin, but a daily glob of Probios appears to have improved her appetite significantly. She stands for nursing and all seems to have leveled out nicely. Although both lambs are small (3 lbs 6 oz and 2 lb 12 oz about 12 hours after birth), when you add 3 lb 14 oz for the dead lamb, 3 placentas, and 3 amnia, what Tolcarne had to carry – and then try to expel – is mind-boggling.

For us, the lessons have been numerous, especially the crucial fact that once a ewe’s water breaks, she must deliver her lamb within an hour or it will die from some combination of no amniotic sac to cushion the lamb and protect its umbilical cord from crimping or tearing, suffocation from trying to breathe and inhaling fluid, and other mechanical and chemical crises we do not yet know about. The time to call for help if no lamb foot or nose is visible is probably no more than about 10 minutes. If the vet cannot get to your farm in time, a shepherd or friend with a small hand may need to go in and try to straighten out the lamb.

If there may be a second lamb, it is essential to figure out how to get the first lamb out, even if it is dead. In our case, the second and third lambs’ amniotic sacs had not broken. The reason the lambs were still alive (in addition to our vet’s skill, of course) is that each of them was encased in its protective sac so its umbilical cord remained intact and the lamb did not suffocate.

A final personal note:  I have small hands, and I bravely announced to Steve that if another breech birth happens, and it is the middle of the night, and we cannot get linked up with a vet, I will try to get the lamb out. Will I do that? I honestly cannot say. What I fervently hope is that neither we nor any other Soay breeder ever has to answer the question. But we are realists, and that is why we wanted to record and share our experience while it is so very fresh in our minds, so that a Soay shepherd (including us) faced with a breech birth in the future will have more knowledge to work with.

For now …

2 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Thanks for sharing. Our Icelandics “usually” do fine lambing on their own, too. Not always, though…
    Terri Carlson

  2. very good story, glad there was a nice out come. I have raised livestock all of my life, born and raised on farm. I raised show goats for yrs, from dairy to mini. Kidding problems were few with the goats, but did come about, my small son at the time has reached in with great care and pulled out babys. I have delived a few, they have come backwards, side ways, upside down. when i found ones i could not deal with, i made a mad dash to the vet in ashland, a very nice man with small hands and a lot of loving care. In almost 20yrs of goats we had 3 c-sections, and 5 trips for help assist. I love this vet do to the fact i was allowed to help, and was told how and when to help our animals out. It was a great education. I have sold all the goats , I now have a few exotics, in sheep. i really enjoy them. I hope this next yr to add soay sheep, I look forward to up dates on how the baby’s and momma are doing.