Monday, 20 June 2011

Life According to Pinto Bean

I have often read accounts of how the sheer will to live has resulted in people and animals surviving extreme and appalling conditions and the stubborn refusal to die was cited as a primary reason why survival was the only outcome. Conversely, although less documented because it doesn’t make a heart-warming story, when there is no will to live, death follows pretty quickly.
In lambing, I have now seen both. We knew that we would be subject toxoplasmosis which results in abortion or deformities. The only laboratory in the UK failed to successfully make the vaccine that we needed so we braced ourselves.
A pattern swiftly emerged mainly among the ewes expecting twins. The first lamb was born weak and very small. The second followed shortly afterwards, either dead or unviable, usually not lasting the first 8 hours. These lambs had that look in their eyes which said I don’t want to live. No amount of warm colostrum tubed into their little tummies, infrared lamps to keep their body temperatures up, antibiotic injections to fight infection or indeed attentive and caring mothers pawing at them to encourage them to stand up and suckle could reverse the path these creatures where on. And there were seven of them, hell bent on leaving this life. I reconciled myself that I had done what I could and my intervention was not going change things. The exception was little Pinto Bean as she has been named.
She was so tiny at birth she would not have been able to reach up to suckle even if she had been born with the strength to do so. And she just reminded me of a little bean. Her first 12 hours where horrible and any other personality would have decided that life was literally not worth living. But not Pinto – she was hell bent on surviving, she defied all odds. She was a definitely a toxo baby, her twin sister didn’t survive the night. Then Pinto’s mother decided to reject her and not only to turn her back but to trample on her and head butt her across the pen. Each time this happened, little Pinto would meekly struggle to her feet as best she could, bleating piteously before apologetically trying to approach her mother only to be sent flying across the pen. I allowed this to happen only twice before I whisked her away, wrapped her in a towel and settled down to watch TV with her in my lap. If she going to die, I thought let her at least know the comfort of a surrogate mother for a couple of hours, holding and accepting her. After about half an hour, I felt her stop shivering and she tentatively began sucking my finger. The antibiotics were clearly working and I managed to get 100ml of warm milk into her. Although she remained desperate for a mother - she tried to suckle the Labrador and the Collie and I even caught her eyeing the cats and hens, Pinto was on the mend. Her second trauma was when I tried to get another ewe to adopt her. We had a healthy single born and after donning gloves, I collected the birth fluid and rubbed all over Pinto before offering her to the new mum. The ewe wasn’t having any of this and Pinto got head butted across a pen again. Again I scooped her out and this time used a towel not to keep her warm but to wash off all the slime before taking back into the house to watch some more TV.

Pinto is now a month old. She has just clocked in at 10kgs and is an authority on international developments as reported by the BBC.
I am definitely her mother and I still give her a bottle twice a day but she has been integrated into the flock since I really want her to know that she is a sheep. At meal times I take her bottle into the field. As I call, she answers loudly and comes bouncing up to me before butting my knees in search of the teat. She then drains her bottle without pausing, her eyes closing in delight. Odd that I can differentiate her call from all the other lambs. The other night as I took my leave of her, I said “Bbbbyee Pinto”. Mom, you are spending too much time with the sheep, said Cameron.

Friday, 17 June 2011

The Flesh House

No matter how many books you might read about a topic, nothing can ever prepare you for hands on experience. I learnt this when I produced my son. I had a refresher course in this lesson with our lambing. The books are all full of neat diagrams of malpresentations and prolapsed uteruses. They show you how to tube a lamb to ensure that initially the colostrum and then the milk reach the lambs’ stomachs and did not go down their air passages. They show pictures of all kind of horrible things that go wrong with lambs – watery mouth, scouring, joint disease and so on. But they gloss over what to me was possibly the most challenging. None of the books tell you what to do with a dead lamb. They all say just dispose of it. Err right, I know I have to dispose of it, but how? And we had seven of these situations.
As ever, our dear neighbours came to the rescue. They showed me where dead lambs need to go and all dead farm animals for that matter. Thus this blog is dedicated to those kind wonderful people at the Hunt who do a job most foul and are still kind, considerate and caring.
You have to put the dead lamb in a black bag and the sooner you get it to the Hunt the better for obvious reasons, especially when we lambed late and the weather had already warmed up considerably. Leave a dead lamb in its bag for a couple of days and you will know all about it. The drive to the Hunt is a classic countryside meander through pretty villages along leafy B-roads. Nothing untoward except just before the left hand turn into the Hunt driveway, I pull over. I apply a finger-full of Vicks Vapour Rub to my top lip and inhale deeply, allowing the pungent smell of camphor to clog my senses. The courtyard is nothing out of the ordinary, until you get out of the car and the smell hits you, even over the camphor sludge just under your nose. I once read an article written by someone who worked for the Red Cross during the Second World War. His job was to clean up and he said: “If the world’s decision makers could experience that smell of death, there would be no more wars.” It is an indescribable smell but so cloying , it gets into your clothes, your hair, so that long after your escape, you can still smell it.
Now, once in the courtyard and having met the smell, you then still have to dispose of your black bag. Invariably there is no one around who might help – they are busy sorting out untold ghastly things so you have to deal with this one your own – which means opening the door of the flesh house. This is the room where everything is brought and you have to be brave to open that door. I watch shoppers in the meat section of Waitrose and its hits home just how these people have no idea about how meat gets onto those fridge shelves and what can go wrong in the process. Yes, they will say, we all know about abattoirs – its all very quick and efficient. I agree but at least the smell there is fresh and the flesh is healthy. But what about that sheep that keels over in the fields and lies there for a few days before the farmer locates it and brings it to the Hunt for disposal? Nothing quick and efficient about that except for the rigor mortis and the maggots. So I brace myself and I open the door. I place my black bag on the floor close to my feet and try not to look around the room, try not to inhale. The scene caught in my peripheral vision defies description. I focus on the black bag, say goodbye to a lamb who didn’t make and then I back the hell out of there, ensuring that the door is properly latched closed.
I drive away more affected than I care to acknowledge, back to the farm and look forward to seeing the healthy lambs bouncing around the fields, confirmation of the circle of life. The smell follows me. Later I cook supper and find I cannot face what I usually eat - a toasted cheese sandwich does just fine.