Soay lambing by moonlight: echoes of the St. Kilda islands

2:15 a.m. Thursday, April 5, 2012, just came in from a magical two hours with our pregnant ewes. Steve and Shawn both turned in early after a couple of really busy days – six lambings on Tuesday and seven yesterday – so I agreed to take the 9pm to midnight lamb checks. At 10:00 all was peaceful; the wind had finally died down after a nasty morning of spitting cold rain; big soft flakes of snow fell gently, as though not to wake up the sleeping lambs and their mothers. When I came back at 11:30, there was enough of a break in the clouds for a glorious full moon to shine down on the new snow and the occupants of the Maternity Ward. I was alone with our ewes. All but one were bedded down, asleep or lazily getting up for a late-night hay snack. Only our beautiful tan ewe Renwick was fidgety, pacing back and forth, obviously in the early stages of labor, ducking in and out of the shadows created by a couple of strong lights in the birthing area. It was frustrating to me and disrupting to her to keep moving around so I could see what was happening with her. So I turned off all the lights, including the hiking light on my cap, found myself a plastic lawnchair and sat down to enjoy the always-magical moment of birth in the soft moonlight. Instead of the sounds of a TV or iPod buds in my ears, all I heard was the low gurgling of our river in the distance, an occasional higher gurgle from a ewe looking for her lamb to give it a late-night milk snack, deep but peaceful breathing from a number of the ewes heaviest with lamb, and nothing else – no cars, no dogs, no machines, no people noise. For about an hour, it was just Renwick and me and then her new lamb. I don’t know if there are any rivers on Hirta and Soay, but what I experienced must have been much like what a St. Kildan would have heard and seen a hundred years ago on the islands during lambing.

I gave Renwick about a half hour with her lamb, plenty of time to get him up and nursing, before I gently picked him up and jugged the two of them with fresh straw, hay, and water, quietly closed the latch on the jug, and silently returned to our house in the moonlight. There will be ample time to crank up the data on this newest lamb – his tag number, his weight, whether or not he will be a breeder in a few years. But for now, I will go to sleep, at last, with the vision of that little gangly lamb in the moonlight with his mother, performing the ancient rituals of birth.

Night, night.