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Monday, March 02, 2009

A shepherd's lament

In this our fifth lambing season, we have been hit head on with tragedy. I'm still reeling from last night's events, but I want to write this entry so that my mistakes and lessons might help other shepherds out there. And I want everyone to send energy, healing, prayers - whatever your inclination- up into the sky for Coral Bell, a very brave sheep.

In the past four seasons, we've had smooth deliveries and healthy ewes and babies. Last Thursday afternoon, I noticed that Coral Bell laid down in the barnyard. I had put the pregnant ewes there so during the day I could watch for any signs of labor starting. When Coral laid down, I thought, "Good, she's probably going to lamb soon", and I noticed she got up and down a couple times, another early sign of pending lambing. I went out to the barnyard to gather the ewes up and saw what I thought was the start of a birth sac coming out of Coral. Put her in her lambing stall, but realized it was not a birth sac, it was what I assumed was the dreaded 'prolapsed vagina'. This can happen when a ewe is carrying an extra heavy load, and Coral was bigger than any ewe we've ever had, and much bigger than her last 2 seasons.

So I immediately did more internet research on prolapsed vagina. And I called the sheep vet to ask a phone opinion. He told me it was not an emergency at that point, as a ewe can lamb with one, and hers was not as severe as they can be.

I went out to check on her in a few hours, and within a very short time her condition had deteriorated. She was listless, head and neck down [stretched out in front of her, with her chin on ground]. Her expression was a dazed look, her eyes were dull, her ears expressionless. And she was grinding her teeth. She was off feed, which can be a normal sign of pending delivery, but I knew her condition wasn't right. Things happened fast, it was early evening, and we weren't sure what to do. I kept thinking it was related to her heavy load, and that she was in early stages of labor. By morning, she was totally listless, and had no energy to get up, or raise her head. We called the vet. Within two hours, we had her on a drip iv to give her energy, and doses of pain killers and vitamins. We harnessed her with a 'spoon' that holds the vagina in to make it more comfortable [the vet said the prolapse would go away after lambing, and hers was not severe]. They suspected 'ketosis' which happens in late stages of pregnancy, often with ewes carrying multiple lambs, and it's caused by lack of adequate minerals/vitamins/calories in her diet these last months. Then they induced labor. They told me we'd have to assist in the delivery, as she'd be too weak, and gave me all sorts of tips on feeling for the babies, and knowing what to do depending on how the babies were arranged in the womb. They also taught me how to tube a lamb, so the new born could get immediate sustenance since Coral might not have milk in her condition, and she would not be able to stand. We were to wait for the water to break in the next 24+ hours, and assist. And in the meantime we were injecting her with multiple shots and oral meds to try to keep her alive. By early evening, she was much stronger, and we checked her at midnight. I even slept in the stall with her for 3 hours Friday night in case her water broke. Martyn came out and found me on the stall floor, and said we were both sleeping, with Coral resting her head on my chest, so he left me there undisturbed. She was calm, and not in as much stress as earlier. By morning, she was alert, and drinking water, and much better, although still off feed, and still unable to get up. But we were hopeful.

The vet called Saturday and verified it was ketosis. So we also added 50cc's of a calcium supplement injected 1x a day. By Saturday night, and then Sunday morning, then Sunday afternoon, there was still no birth sac. She was slightly more dilated, but not much. I guess even when induced, this can happen. Finally, after midnight Sunday evening, her water broke.

I was really confidant, and calm. But a multitude of mistakes on my part led to tragedy. When the water breaks, most lambings proceed in 30 minutes to an hour. That has always been the case here too. The vet told me to reach in and feel for the positions of the babies, hoping it would be 2 front feet and a head coming out. If not, reach in, get your bearings in there, stay calm, and rearrange babies for normal birthing position. I found two feet, and a head. So I gave her about 15 minutes to see if she could progress at all. She was pushing, but I reached in again and began pulling, but I somehow lost track of the head. The 2 legs coming out were stuck at the shoulder line. We thought. But I could hardly get my hand back in to readjust, or find a head. I didn't panic, I'm pleased that's one thing I did right. But I got all the parts confused, and began thinking the two legs I had out were hind legs. I had asked the vet assistant what to do if it was hind end first, and she due to Coral's condition, pull it out by the legs. Our goal was always to get the babies out asap, to help Coral. So I kept pulling, and pulling. But the cervix wasn't big enough. And here is another key mistake I made, perhaps the worst mistake. We decided that she needed more time, that the books had all said, 'don't rush it' and that maybe her cervix needed time to dilate more. It was now 1:30 am, one hour after the water broke. Martyn decided to go lie down for 20 minutes, and stayed with Coral. She was clearly trying to push, so in about 10 minutes, I reached in again, determined. I took my time and really felt around the womb. I could feel toes, and a head. But I wrongly assumed the legs I was pulling did not belong to that head. I worked for 20 minutes trying to rearrange parts, and get the lamb's rear end [I thought] out, but it wasn't coming. It was now 2am, and I told Martyn we had to call a vet. I knew it would cost a fortune, but there was no choice. {The previous Thursday's ER visit came to $500].

It took him until 3 am to get to us. It had now been 2.5 hours since she broke water. The vet arrived, and had to work pretty hard to get the first lamb out. He pulled it out, no heartbeat. The next one came out easier, no heartbeat. One more came out, no heartbeat.

Three beautiful spotted little ewe lambs, all very large, which was part of the problem. The vet said, and this will haunt me for years, that if we had pulled them out sooner, they probably would have lived. He said my biggest mistake was thinking the front legs that first emerged were hind legs, when they in fact were front legs. He said it was a difficult position to adjust, and that I needed to get the lambs head in between the front legs. If they truly had been hind legs, they would have come out, but the head was stuck. If I had known, I could have had all three out in 30 minutes, most likely. We also had never been told "No matter what, they need to be out in 2 hours maximum from water breaking". All the books say, 'Give them up to 2 hours, and if "no progress' is being made, call a vet. I felt we were making progress, but it was not enough progress. I feel there was some communication glitch there to with me and the vet on Thursday, as they told me to give her up to an hour [assuming the positions of baby was normal when I first reached in] to try to push them out on her own. I only waited 15 minutes. But I still blew it.

Perhaps what's even harder to take, there is still a chance Coral won't make it. If she has a tear of any kind in her uterus [since two of us were prodding and poking], there won't be a recovery from that. She will simply never get up, and it will eventually kill her. He said if she is not up and walking in about 5 days, that will be a sign. We are to expect her to be downed though for the next 3-5 days while she regains her energy, now that she doesn't have lambs using her energy reserves.

To complicate things, Rosie also has ketosis, and most likely has triplets. She had triplets last year too. We treated her with the same meds as Coral, and she has recovered some, but the vet said I will need to assist her in delivery. And I'm terrified. But I'll do it, and I can only hope I will do better. She is due any day.

I thought I was on top of my feeding regime, and it's worked for 4 seasons. The mistake I made there, and I know I'm not the first, is that Coral was obviously carrying an extra large load, and I should have increased her feed regiment that I start 4 weeks before lambing. I should have given more than the usual ration.

I can not tell you how surreal it was to see those three lambs lined up on the bloody hay beside me. My only consolation is they died together, in the womb. I hold myself completely. It was 6 am and the sun was just rising. Pino stood up on the hill, watching Martyn as he buried the three lambs in the lower lavender field.