Soay Lamb Camp 2015: setting the stage

I have an unlikely Soay sheep tale to share with you about a magical three days we just experienced when three utterly delightful women — one from Cleveland, one from Cincinnati, and one from St. Louis — came all the way out to Oregon to share lambing with us for just three days — almost precisely 72 hours. How to relate this caper has caused me no small amount of consternation ever since they left earlier this week. I have struggled to find words and a structure to make it come alive for my readers. But life, and lambing, and getting ready for the start of irrigation, goes on, so here goes.

What we have dubbed “Lamb Camp 2015” did not happen by accident. The story of Lamb Camp 2015 in fact begins two years earlier with an equally uncommon episode in our lives during lambing 2013.

Two years ago in March, just as lambing was about to begin, we got a call from a professional cellist in Cleveland wanting to visit our Soay sheep farm right during lambing. I can’t speak for other heritage livestock breeders, but the last thing I want during lambing is anyone else besides Steve, Shawn, and me getting in the way, having to be fed and clothed and at least minimally “hosted” — you get the picture. So our first impulse was to tell the cellist politely that much as we like her, she would have to wait until after lambing to visit because she would just be underfoot. Our hesitation was, we thought, well taken, especially since Ida was not, at that point, what you would call an intimate, close personal friend. We had been introduced to her a few years previously when she made her annual pilgrimage out here to perform in the splendid Britt Classical Music Festival we are lucky enough to have in nearby Jacksonville each August. She and/or her husband Glenn and/or her son Ian had driven out to the farm to have a quick look at our farm between rehearsals, or for Ian to practice on my piano, or for lunch on Ida’s day off, but she had never stayed overnight with us. Spoiler alert: by the end of this story, you will hear that both Steve and I now consider Ida and Whitney and Audrey to be part of our family, but that’s getting ahead of myself.

Ida persisted, assuring us by phone that yes she knew we would basically ignore her, yes she knew we would be getting up in the middle of the night to check for lambs, and most importantly, yes she understood that she might come out here for a long weekend and not see a single lamb born. She was not to be deterred. And so on the first weekend of May, she showed up in her blue jeans and dove head and feet first into lambing with us.

To our great delight, Ida was true to her word: she took the 2:00 a.m. lamb check one night; she was the first one up in the morning to check for overnight lambs.Saltmarsh Soay Sheep Lamb Camp Nothing would do but that she would act as scribe for Steve as he worked newborns.

Best of all, by sheer luck Ida saw well over a dozen lambs born from both our British ewes and the crossbred American Soay we had back then, all in less than three days. It was unbelievable. The lambs just kept coming and coming and coming. The mother of twins herself, Ida was insistent one afternoon that Steve should come to the lambing area to help a ewe. Despite his assurances that Soay ewes “always” lamb unassisted (in part because at least the British ewes are too small for a normal-sized human hand to provide “inside” assistance), Ida nagged him over the walkie talkie into coming up to check. Sure enough, two lambs were stuck in the birth canal, with one lamb’s shoulder apparently locked under the other lamb’s armpit. Steve somehow managed to get his big hand far enough inside that big American ewe to push the lambs back until they must have sort of sprung apart, rearranged themselves, and came out without further ado.

The most fun Ida had that year was with a lamb she did not watch arrive. About two weeks before she got here, one of our smallest lambs ever, Tiny Tim, made his dramatic appearance, first abandoned by his mother and then miraculously adopted by a ewe whose had just lost her newborn lamb. His early days are chronicled here.

Ida could not get enough of Tiny Tim. She fussed over him in the nursery, where we kept him long after his contemporaries had moved on up to the sunny play area with their moms. She worried over his every stumble.Saltmarsh Ranch Lamb Camp Does this look like someone who might stow a little lamb away in her carry-on luggage for her crack-of-dawn return flight to Cleveland?

How would you vote? Did Ida deserve a repeat invitation for our 2015 lambing? OF COURSE!

This year, she put in her bid early, while she was out here for the Britt Festival last August. She wanted her 2015 lambing adventure to include one of her daughters who could get off work, and a beloved niece who had shared Ida’s tales about 2013 lambing with her 1st grade class in a Cleveland inner city school. How could we say no? The trick was that the niece, Audrey, could only come on one end of her current (St. Louis) school’s spring break, April 10-12. So of course that’s the weekend we chose. Ida cleared her cello teaching schedule. Her daughter Whitney arranged to miss two days of work for travel. Audrey cleared her absence with her principal, who was delighted she would be bringing back lots of anecdotes and pictures to share with her six-year-old students.

Can lambing be timed?

But wait. How on earth were we going to be sure there were lambs born while not one, but three, people flew half way across country for just that activity, and no others, and for only three days? **Gulp** We just could not imagine having the girls here with no lambs. What to do?

Data, of course! We adore data. We thrive on it. We spend hours, as regular readers know, picking apart data and talking to each other about it. So back to the data we went. Much as I would love to include the story of predicting the lambing crunch right here, this post is already too long. And besides, I don’t want to spoil any surprises. The results of our second-guessing Mother Soay Nature will be the last post I put up about Lamb Camp. Stay tuned for the next chapter of Lamb Camp 2015.

For now …

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