My story for this evening is about adoption in ewes.

It started with finding a ewe that was obviously lambing, but didn’t seem able to deliver any lambs.  She had been scanned with twins. (The pregnant ewes get ultrasound scans to determine how many lambs they’re carrying.)  We got her out of the large pen and into a little lambing pen, and Matthew let me try to find out what was wrong.

The first lamb had its legs folded in such a way that the body couldn’t come through the birthing canal.  Poor ewe, but lucky Gabriel—I was sure hoping for the chance to have to push around bodies and try to untangle the various body parts so that the lambs would come out, and I got the chance that day.  Dear Matthew is blessed with a lot of Welsh farmer patience, because I’m sure it took me about four times longer than it would have taken him.  Finally this slippery thing falls down onto the straw, and while I’m all excited and trying to wipe the lamb off, suddenly I hear him give this sort of yelp.  “Crikey!  I’ve never seen that before.  There’s something wrong with the head on ‘im!”  It was like some of the skull bones hadn’t knit, and perhaps a few bones didn’t even form.  Check out the membrane hanging out between bones!

The little character was still alive and struggling to suckle, but Matthew, um, had to put it out of its misery.

He told me to stop right there, not to pull the second lamb.  Now we get to the adoption part.  This freshly lambed ewe was all ready for twins, including lots of milk (plenty of oxytocin running rampant in her body), but suddenly only one lamb, healthy and beautiful, to be sure, was going to drink that milk. Well, a few hours previously another ewe had had triplets.  Since sheep only have two teats, no ewe is good enough to rear three lambs well.  Matthew told me that he was going to take one of the triplets and “adopt it onto” this ewe that was supposed to have twins.

He chose the largest (and hungriest) of the triplets and put it into his “adoption bucket.”  First, he tied the lamb’s four legs together with a bit of “cord” (we call it twine).  Then he poured warm water all over the lamb.  Finally he brought the bucketful of a rather perturbed wet lamb over to the ewe, and while I pulled that second lamb, he made sure he caught all the gooey stuff in the bucket. I even reached in a few more times just to scoop out everything I could, and the positively perturbed lamb was unceremoniously smeared all over with, well, blood and afterbirth. I felt some pity for the wee mite, but Matthew explained that those weren’t actually angry bleats–the lamb just wanted to be born again so badly.

Then Matthew put the tied-up lamb in the pen beside the newly born lamb.  You see, since they’re both lying down, wet, struggling, and bleating, the power of maternal instinct kicks in and the ewe licks both her own lamb and the interloper violently.

A few minutes later, both lambs were clean and dry.  The white lamb (the biological offspring) was now a bit stronger, and trying to get up and hobble over to nurse.

Matthew cut the twine off the four legs of the brown/black lamb (the interloper)—but then tied the two front legs together.  If the lambs are at the same stage of development, you see, the mother will pay the same amount of attention to them both, and thus doesn’t really notice that the one lamb had a bit of lingering foreign smell.  So both lambs are hobbling around, falling all over the place, bleating angrily… and the ewe is frantically trying to nuzzle them both equally!

Several minutes later, the mother was fully convinced that she had given birth to two healthy lambs, and the twine could be cut off the brown/black lamb’s legs.  By this evening, not even the most observant farmer would see the difference between the two lambs.

And once more I knew why I want to be a vet.