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Tails Behind Them

Agriculture Family Farm Fiber Lambing Little Bo Peep Merino Seasons Sheep Shepherd Shetland Sheep Tails Tales Vermont Vermont Sheep and Goat Association Weaning

Mansfield, nicknamed ‘Manny’, was born to Laurel on the afternoon of  April 6th, kicking off the 2014 lambing season here.  His arrival was witnessed by a great support of friends that had been viewing our barn-camera, the LambCam, for a few weeks running.  I’d just set out to drive my youngest daughter back to college early that morning and got texts and messages from our audience of watching local friends exclaiming “Laurel is in labor!”

We’d delayed Char’s return to school by a night because the afternoon before we’d discovered our Shetland pony was having severe colic as a result of a tick-born illness that struck her suddenly.  It wasn’t the first time in Char’s academic career that she’d been detained because of the farm, and we turned around in time for her to send word to her professors that she would be missing classes and return just as soon as she could to pick up the assignments.

Manny was the largest lamb we’d ever had arrive on our farm.  Our Shetland flock’s lambs are wee-things compared to this dark-as-night, tightly snuggled, leggy little man-lamb that gradually uncurled and stood up next to his mama.  His eyes, flesh and his coat so dark you could hardly tell his expressions  and a tail that seemed a mile long.

We dried him off and clipped his cord, placing him back with Laurel to nurse.  She was a first time mama who did not prefer an audience, so we gave her the space she needed and watched the bonding via the camera-connection inside our house.

Manny & Laurel, early days
Manny & Laurel, early days

We had a friend from a nearby community stop in the first days after Manny arrived. He accompanied another friend who had been keeping her horse at the farm for a short spell and I always love sharing the lambs with visitors. Donald has what I imagine to be a dream-income working for the Vermont Land Trust visiting farms and properties for a living.  However, his arrival unintentionally illuminates all of the things I might not be doing right by the VLT or the higher calling of professional agricultural academia: the overgrown weeds and unfinished farm projects stand out, the cobwebs become thicker, the hooves on the animals look longer, the peeling paint is flakier.  That feeling of your mother-in-law showing up even though you’ve cleaned.  He’s not unkindly critical, I am just a sensitive farm-keeper.

Donald suggested tray-pans to catch the fallen hay for under the nice hay-racks that my husband had just brought home for my different paddocks and groups of animals.  That made sense so as to keep the animals from picking up parasites off of the ground.  It still hasn’t happened, but it’s on my list.  He studied the flock for a bit, sharing his sheep-knowledge, asking questions about different qualities of the Shetland breed.  He wondered that I docked the Shetland tails, which I do not, and suggested that I would want to dock Manny’s tail. Apparently the length of the tail becomes unhygienic with manure, which invites flies, which invites fly-strike.

Fly-strike is a condition which can quickly develop and is potentially dangerous if not caught immediately.  Without going into details, you can imagine the hazards of hosting parasites for a lamb, or anyone for that matter.  Being that it is my first time raising Merinos, I set to studying up about their lamb care to learn what might be different than the experience I’d had with Shetlands.

My husband helped me on the day we docked Manny’s tail.  There are times I’m shy to deliver painful procedures to my flock, even if it is in their best interest, and enlist the support of my family for assistance.  A tiny elastic band was snapped onto his too-long tail about 5 inches from the base and the only fussing was when we had to pick him up to hold him.  His mama stood nearby and baaah-ed enough for everyone at the intrusion and we returned him to her in a trice to nurse and settle her nerves.

He went about his days and nights growing like gang-busters but not becoming any less shy, remaining submissive to the flock of pregnant ewes around him. Over the weeks we kept Laurel & Manny separated from the other pregnant ewes with some metal panels that allowed them to interact with the others while keeping her new baby very close.  Laurel now had a little one that looked exactly like herself and the two of them stood out in the flock for their size, their color, the low timbre of the baah, their shy behavior.  Over the months they integrated gradually and pleasantly with the other lambs and mamas.  Manny picked up a crew of Shetland lamb buddies – 11 of them altogether.  He didn’t know he was 2 feet taller than the rest of them, the gentle giant of the lamb-fam.

One day I walked back through the park, our wooded pasture-lot, and glanced at a dark, black stick.  I briefly studied the form and bent down, picking it up and putting it in my deep barn coat pocket, continuing the chores of moving sheep in for the night, feeding and watering the ponies and goats, side-stepping the bustling buck, ram and alpacas.  Days turned to weeks and summer weather meant skipping out to do chores in short sleeves, skirts & shorts and boots.  Such a freedom from the heavy bundling of fall, winter & spring chore-attire.

Days turned to weeks and the Shetland lambs also needed adjustments to their wardrobes as well.  It was time to wether the 8 little boys here so as not to go into fall with 8 little rams, procreating with every available ewe, overpopulating the farm in 2015.  We gathered the little men up and got our tools to band their parts which puts an end to their potential for virility and also allows us to keep them as wethers.  We perform this procedure in the barn while the babies are still young enough to be nursing, catching them up for a minute, slipping the band over and around their testicles, and then returning them to their mamas for comfort.  Most of the time it is quite uneventful though we occasionally have a wiggly wooly one that requires extra hands to hold him still.  We take up to half an hour to band the crew and you can think of a lot of tasteless jokes in that length of time to lighten the mood.  Really bad barn jokes.

Manny was too big for our tools.

I made an appointment with our vet to have Manny emasculated under anesthesia.  I didn’t want him to breed with the other ewes, especially not Laurel.  The “line-breeding” practice is not one that I like to encourage here. I’d been unsuccessful earlier in the spring trying to find him a home as a ram. One farm that had been interested ended up changing their mind and I became settled with the idea of him staying here as a wether, a beautiful addition to our fiber flock.

For some reason, two evenings before his scheduled vet visit, I was inspired to give it a last go and sent an email out to the listserve of the Vermont Sheep & Goat Association, of which I’m a member.  I described Manny’s temperament, his health, his lineage and availability, hoping to find him a home as a stud if possible.  Last ditch effort.  I was thinking ahead to that Friday that I was to drive him to Rupert, knowing that I was going to be running & gunning that day, so maybe I’d reschedule if I couldn’t find him a home. Within hours I had two inquiries. I was so relieved and delighted and we ended up making arrangements with a new farm in Orwell, under two hours away.

The farmers are new to the area and are building a big barn, have acres and acres of good forage, and their intentions are to make sheeps’ milk cheese and have some fiber-producing flock.  Manny had already been elevated to “King Manny” at their farm without the new owners even meeting him.  We were delighted to know that his new home would love him like their own.

Yesterday morning we brought my son to the airport to return to his midwestern apartment.  It’d been a brief catch-up for him here in Vermont to help us celebrate our youngest’s birthday, have some family time together and share the farm.  This is the kid that had all of the breeds of the chickens memorized when we first started farming almost 15 years ago.  The one that combed the catalogs to recommend the endangered breeds we should try to raise.  I loved having him home for a tiny bit to show off the flocks and the gardens and let him wake up to the sound of the roosters vs. traffic for two days.  It’s always sad to say goodbye.

As soon as we got back from the airport, we kicked it into high gear and headed to the barn.  Manny’s new owners were to arrive in about 15 minutes to pick him up and Princess Peppermint, our free-ranging American Guinea Hog, had left a bit of a wake to clean up in the aisle-way.  I moved the lambs to a smaller paddock with the adjacent lamb-jug, a tiny stall, so that I could separate our little dark friend with the least amount of stress when the time came.

Nancy & Mike arrived in jolly spirits, enjoying the piggy-by-the-pool as they drove in, soaking up our ponies and chatting about the work they had in front of them with their farming project in Orwell.  We learned about the companions that Manny would have, gave them some of the grain I’d been feeding him and loaded him into the backseat of their pickup truck for the ride to his new home.

It wasn’t easy for me, any of it, compounded by Manny’s persistent and mournful bleating after being separated from his buddies and then collected up into the truck.  I’m a sensitive helicopter-lamb-mama and so of course, I felt all of his anixiety very keenly.  Still do.

Back seat driver - Manny with his new owners
Back seat driver – Manny with his new owners

Manny Bleating out the Back

 

Last evening I’d gotten the message from my son that he arrived back in Minny alright, and now I’m waiting to hear from Manny’s owners that he got to his new farm uneventfully.  I’ve sent two emails of inquiry already.  I’m trying not to hover.  But it’s my specialty.  Call me Bo Peep.

Meanwhile, you know what I pocketed that early spring day when I walked the back pasture, don’t you?  Whenever I put on that heavy barn coat, I can reach into the depths of that left-hand pocket any time and wrap my hand around the rabbits’ foot-lambs’ tail reminder that hard choices aren’t bad decisions.

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