Lambing Live

“Where in God’s name are they coming from!? No! There goes another! No! Shut the gate – you’re too slow! I CAN’T COPE WITH THIS ANY MORE!”

It was dark, and she was frightening me. I’d been on the farm for all of two hours, and was already being crushed under the pressure of a sheep-centred disaster. Ewes were plunging through the gates and spilling into the yard, barging past me while I tried to filter instructions from the shepherd’s wailing.

Think! What’s the yard layout, where are the exits? Where are the sheep likely to bolt?

Half an hour later, I was ramming the last ewe’s backside through the gate and slamming it shut behind her. Little did I know that this would be a routine event, and that I was going to have to get used to the shouting.

After the midnight check I stowed myself away in my farmhouse bedroom to crash for the night. Or so I thought. I lay in bed watching my breath rise towards the ceiling in little moonlit clouds, but the cold was by far the least of my problems. The long-legged insects that had been crowding around the lightbulb were now bumbling around the room, and every so often a sinister shape would scuttle across the floor on the hunt to catch one. But something bigger than a spider was scratching around in the great mounds of clutter. I’d seen the rats in the grain store, even in the gutter that ran over my windows. Surely not in my bedroom too?

The shepherd had told me to rise at first light. My phone said it was 01:30… and so I waited out the next four hours with my new roommates.

As soon as the horizon began to glow, I pulled on some extra layers and headed downstairs. Wellies, hat, coat. As I stepped out into the yard, a black and white face appeared at the door to a kennel, “Hi Charlie boy.” I would come to adore that dog.

Woolly heads turned silently to watch me as I made my way past the fields to the polytunnel. Everything was quiet when I got there, no new lambs, no disasters. And the same serenity in the small barn. And so I set about changing the water buckets in each of the lambing pens, putting fresh hay into the feeders, and cuddling little lambs. Then it was off to the big barn to make up the feed. Fourteen buckets of grain, six of concentrate, I think she’d said.

The sliding doors were ridiculously heavy, but I made a gap big enough for myself and slipped in. Everyone was sleeping soundly in the straw, lambs curled up against their mothers, and a single face lifted to look at me. Immediately, the silence erupted into the bellowing of 100 ewes. Sheep launched to their feet, clamouring at the fences to get their feed, “Bloody hell, ladies!”

180 kilos of feed later, all mixed and divided into buckets, I ditched the shovel and made my way back to the house to grab breakfast. After searching the piles of junk in the kitchen, I soon realised that there wasn’t a single clean piece of crockery in the whole house, and so I settled for biscuits that I’d brought with me. At 07:00 I returned to the sheep to check on them.

I was sitting with a lamb across my lap, totally besotted with its tiny little everything. Tiny little pink nose, bright little eyes, and fluffy ears that had been made floppy by the oversized tags punched into them. It was seeking out the ends of my fingers with its toothless mouth.

“ELSIE!! ELSIE? ELSIIIEEEE” someone was screaming a version of my name across the farm. Alarmed by the urgency of the call, I ditched the lamb back in its pen and tripped over my wellies running out the door.

“Yes? Hello? I’m here!” I stumbled about looking for the emergency. And then I spotted her, standing across the yard, screaming my name. I made my way over, breathless, “Hello! I’m here. And, its um, it’s Elise.”

Bracing for medical action, I waited for the briefing. Instead, she said, “Elise. What on earth have you been doing?”

What? I told her everything I’d been doing, feeling as though I might make a decent impression on the first day of the placement, considering I was up nearly three hours before her. After telling me not to waste my time changing water (because hey, dirty water is only the best route of faecal-oral transmission of disease), she outlined the jobs to do that morning. And so we set off doing farm-y things like putting out feed, fetching fodder beet and moving sheep.

She’d told me about a sickly lamb in the small barn, and later that day went to give it an injection. Of what, I never fully established. Her husband was in the barn when we arrived, and after she’d stuck the needle into the rump of the little collapsed mound, he told her it was dead. She ranted for a bit about having given a dead sheep a shot, and then suddenly the onus landed on me to call its time of death. Feeling like I was in an episode of Casualty, I took my stethoscope to the animal and listened. Nothing. I tried a little further forward… still nothing. I felt ridiculous as they both watched me, but wanted to be absolutely sure.

No, it was definitely dead. The body was taken to “the usual place” and left for collection. But something niggled in my mind, a little academic book worm tapping on my brain. We were walking the fence line to bring in some sheep, and I decided to grow a pair and ask, “The last thing I wish to be is insensitive… but I wondered if there was any possibility at all, if it’s okay with you – and no problem if it isn’t – if I could possibly… take a look inside the deceased lamb?”

My God, could I have been more awkward?

And so that’s how I found myself kneeling over the skinned and eviscerated body of a lamb, sheepishly waving a blood-soaked hand at some visitors. I wanted the ground to swallow me up. On the floor of the big barn, I’d laid out the digestive tract, and was currently digging around in the chest cavity through a window I’d made in the ribs… when two elderly couples appeared at the door.

Rapidly retrieving my hand, which was holding a steaming heart, I gave them a small salute before realising that my hands were soaked in blood, “Err… good afternoon!” Their horrified faces were a picture, but they were soon moved along by the shepherd, who informed them that I was a vet student, and not in fact a psycho.

Over the next few days I became competent at processing new lambs. Discovering each one was like finding a precious gem lying in the straw. And each one was a totally unique experience. Some mothers were old hands and followed their lambs willingly into a pen as I dangled them in front of their noses. Others were new to this mothering malarkey and very confused, which simply meant spending more time teaching her to follow the lambs, even to the point of bleating to mimic the sound of their distress. Each lamb needed oral treatments and iodine on their navels. Their birthdays, sex, markings and breed were all recorded… and then I flipped their mothers onto their backsides and strip milked the udders – to much protestation. It’s not as respectful and tender as I suspect human midwifery is. But it’s magical all the same.

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Minus the Sweeney Todd episode, the week continued in this fashion. Instead of feeling more comfortable because I became more competent, I simply learnt to take the criticisms and outbursts less personally and just agree with her. I learnt to wear thermals to bed and became so exhausted on 5 hours’ sleep that the night creatures didn’t worry me any more. I learnt to juggle washbag contents to avoid getting sink-mould on my toothbrush, and to eat with cutlery that still had old food stuck to it.

And I learnt to depend on myself for company through long days with no way to contact home. It’s a good job I’m the funniest person I know.

Week 2 began with an “early start”, which just meant that she had to get up at the same time as I usually did. After a predictably stressful episode herding six fat lambs into a trailer, we set off to the nearby livestock auction centre, where we unloaded and registered them. It was indescribably refreshing, to finally be off the farm and in the company of other folk. There were hoards of stereotypical Yorkshire farmers, with their sheep, pigs and cattle. We moved the animals from pen to pen as we queued for the weighbridge, and they were about to be taken off our hands by some skilled young stockmen, when one appeared to realise where it was headed. I didn’t see it in time, and it wheeled through 180 degrees to make a break for freedom. It scarpered, barging past the shepherd and knocking her flying. I went after it, snagging it by the lower jaw and swinging it back around. Securing the gate, I turned to the shepherd, “Are you okay?”

She was stretched out on the shit-coated concrete in her best coat. She was not okay.

We got her back on her feet and finished the paperwork, before heading back to the vehicle to go home. The fat lambs didn’t make as much as she’d hoped, but I’m sure they made someone a fantastic dinner.

But the fun didn’t stop there. On Tuesday, I waited anxiously for the vet to arrive – it was blood testing day. Every two years, 100 sheep in the flock are blood tested for the Maedi Visna virus, a terrible incurable disease that can cause significant losses among sheep flocks. And today was the day.

In the hours beforehand, we had enlisted the help of a neighbour to gather the sheep into a tight pen, ready for the vet. When he pulled up it was all go, arranging supplies for a rapid turnover of sheep. I got the chance to introduce myself to him as a vet student, which felt very good indeed. And he said to me, “Ah, excellent. I’ll do this bunch first, and then you can have a go. Would you like to do that?”

Er, yes please!

The stockmen restrained the sheep against a wall one by one, turning their noses into the air to expose the jugular vein. The vet worked like a machine, clipping the wool away from their necks, raising the vein and collecting the blood one-handed. Meanwhile, I struggled to keep up recording the tag numbers and preparing his next needle. It was incredible to watch.

After he’d done around 30 sheep I handed him his next needle, and he handed it back, “Your turn.”

Exhilarated, I hopped into the pen. The stockmen restrained my sheep, and I crouched at its head with the vet. Suddenly realising that he might have expectations I hurried to say, “I’ve never drawn blood from anything before.” I held my breath, would he still let me do it?

“No problem. We’ll just start from scratch.”

Was… was that a pun?

He raised the vein for me, and then let it collapse, “Can you see that? There’s the trachea, here’s where you apply pressure, and there’s the vein. You want your needle nearly parallel with the skin, don’t hesitate, just slide it in. Then push the tube against the needle with one hand – it’s evacuated so the blood will be pulled in – and let it fill to the white label. If it doesn’t bleed, you’ve gone too far and you need to pull back a bit. But don’t withdraw it completely, because you’ll lose the vacuum, so you’ve only got one go. Withdraw at the same angle you went in, and press the wound to stop a haematoma forming. Resheath the needle immediately. Okay?”

I kind of nodded.

“Okay, go.”

In the time he’d been teaching me, the sheep had got restless and fed up, and was struggling against the stockmen. Oh great, a moving target. One deep breath, and I raised the vein, bracing the blood tube against the animal’s contracting neck. I punctured the skin a little too hesitantly, which prolonged the pain, and the sheep jumped. As it recoiled from me, there was a moment where the needle hung unsupported from the vein, and I hurried to catch it again as the animal pushed back towards me. Once I had a hold of it, I gripped the tube and needle together, and the blood flowed satisfyingly quickly into the tube. I withdrew and resheathed – phew!

Once the first one was done, I bled sheep after sheep in the most satisfying process ever. It was going so well – I lost the vacuum once when a sheep pulled the needle all the way out, but otherwise it was a smooth operation. Around 20 sheep in, we got a feisty one who struggled desperately to get away. It was a bit of a dance, but I got her blood. Just as I went to put the cap back on the needle, the stockmen released her. She launched herself back into the flock, catching my elbow on the way out… and the needle sank straight into the end of my finger. Oh shit.

Handing the needle off to the shepherd for storage, she swapped it for the next one. The next sheep was ready and I went to raise its vein, when I saw blood already on its fleece, “Have we done this one already?”

“No, go ahead.”

And so I did, and thought I’d buggered it up because its blood was spilling outside the tube. How did I manage that? It took a few more sheep to realise that it was in fact my blood that was all over the sheep and the tubes. I immediately worried about contamination of the samples, but was far too embarrassed to bring it up.

In the end, I couldn’t quite believe the amount of blood I was smearing all over everything and I mentioned it to the vet… it totally wasn’t a problem for him. But the shepherd overheard and, probably fearing some sort of lawsuit when I came down with a bloodborne protozoa, immediately dismissed me to “go and clean yourself up”. Pretty miffed that I’d managed to sideline myself from the action, I hunted out her First Aid kit, and had to chuckle to myself. It consisted of a pile of ancient packets labelled “sterile”, which sat buried in the bodies of tens of dead flies and spiders. Sterile my ass. I took a moment to hope that nothing serious would happen to me while I was there.

The 100 were bled in record time, and I enjoyed it immensely.

And the very next day, it was vaccination day. The very same sheep we’d traumatised on Tuesday were again rounded up into a tight pen ready for their lambs to have Heptavac P+, which protects against clostridial and pasteurella bacterial infections. Unlike in human and small animal medicine, where you draw up a single-use syringe, Heptavac comes in a bottle that you screw to the top of a vaccination gun. You stick ’em, pull the trigger and move on to the next one.

And so I stood in the fray of panicked sheep with my gun pointed up in the air. In reality, I struggled to find any orientation to point it in that was particularly safe for everyone involved. The shepherd set about grabbing big lambs to present to me. It’s a subcutaneous injection that she puts in the back of the neck. And so the whole affair ended up like a game of Twister, as she restrained and I tried to lift the neck skin and stick the vaccine under it. Having never been handled before, the lambs struggled and wiggled everywhere.

And I cannot believe I didn’t see this coming. The injection site was centimetres from my hand, and so my thumb got about a quarter dose of vaccine. The last time this happened, the student went to A&E for fear of… adverse side effects. The doctors there were convinced that there’s nothing to worry about, and so I went to the fly-filled First Aid kit instead. And here I am, possibly even immune to pasteurella!

Of course, each day passed with more newborn lambs, but the sheep yet to lamb were all Shetlands. This is a hardy, ‘primitive’ breed, that needs next to no assistance during lambing. They just slide out silently, and you come back to find them in the straw. This was great for the sheep – no one wants my hand two feet up their vagina – but rather disappointing for a vet student. Where’s my emergencies? My action?

Just on the very last day, when I thought I’d see no ovine gynaecology, this appeared on one of my rounds:

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Finally! I tried to tempt the ewe into a pen with her lamb, but she was understandably unsettled and wouldn’t come. There was no way I was attempting to put the whole thing back in by myself, so I dashed back to the house, where I knew the shepherd was still sleeping. Jogging up the stairs, I nearly collided with her pyjama-clad form outside her bedroom door.

“Oh, good morning!” I said, “We have a total uterine prolapse, what do you want me to do?”

“Are you sure?” she was mumbling, “I’ve never had one all the way out. It’s probably just a bit, we’ll put it back in.”

This time I was more assertive, “No, I’m very certain it’s total.”

By the time she made it down to the polytunnel, she was more than a little surprised to see the entire uterus everted from the back of her sheep, “We need a vet.”

The senior clinician from her veterinary surgery turned up only an hour later. On finding out I was a vet student, he asked me to join him round the back end of the ewe. Administering an epidural, he proceeded to show me how he replaces the uterus. It was a long process, and he didn’t seem to be making any progress, but reassured me that at some point it would ‘go’. And after quite a while, it squelched back in like an octopus.

So it was back, but that’s not the end of it. Next, he produced a large curved needle, and proceeded to sew a circle around the vulva (ouch) to make sure it wouldn’t come back out. The finished product was wonderful, if you like that sort of thing:

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And so my lambing adventures for 2016 concluded with a bang. In those two weeks I learnt a lot about sheep, but also about people and about myself. Yes, I think it’s a shame for a vet student not to deliver lambs, but I have four more years to really get stuck in. On the other hand, I’ve done many things that most other students didn’t get to do. All the beautiful little moments bottle-feeding orphans, shearing great faecal dreadlocks from the longwool sheep, bonding with Charlie dog, walking through the stunning valley, and watching a new life make it to its feet… these moments are too numerous to blog about, but they’re what make these placements so memorable.

Boy, am I studying an amazing degree.

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