Never at a loss for words, Rare Breeds Manager Elaine Shirley coins the phrase “disgustingly adorable” to describe this year’s lambs.
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Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.
Among the first signs of spring are daffodils, budding trees, and at Colonial Williamsburg, new lambs.
Elaine Shirley: (Lamb baa.) This 08-10, because she's the tenth lamb born in 2008.
Lloyd: Elaine Shirley, who is manager of rare breeds, attends the births.
Do you let other people, visitors, come and watch the lambing?
Elaine: The ewes lamb whenever they're ready, and if there are people watching, there are people watching. We have had lambs born with 250 people lining the fences, and I have lambs born in the middle of the night when nobody sees it.
Lloyd: That's rather a big audience, even for a ewe.
Elaine: Well, lambing's very exciting. We have a lot of people who live in town or who visit this time of year who know that lambing occurs in March and April, with a little bit of leeway. They are always looking. I am absolutely amazed every year at how many people come up to me and say, "When are the lambs coming? When are the lambs coming? I saw the pregnant ewes behind Wetherburn's." That's our maternity ward.
Lloyd: Even as manager of rare breeds, are you that good at predicting when a lamb is actually going to be born, as opposed to saying, "Well, March and April."
Elaine: Well I can predict because I know when I put the ram in. And so I know 147 days later, we could start having lambs. Now, just like any birth, there is a certain amount of leeway. Ewes who have never had lambs before sometimes go a little earlier, so they might go at 145 days.
This year we were ready the Saturday before Easter, on Palm Saturday I guess it is, we were ready for lambing and it took them a week. Nobody lambed the first week, which was kind of disappointing because we didn't have lambs out for Easter, which we always strive for.
Lloyd: So, a ewe who has never lambed before is earlier?
Elaine: Sometimes. Sometimes they're earlier.
Lloyd: You can learn all sorts of things about lambs. What, is there as much attention paid to other rare breeds?
Elaine: Giving birth, you mean?
Lloyd: Yeah. Do people line up to … ?
Elaine: Well, they do. The cattle currently are out at Carter's Grove, so unfortunately people don't get to see that. But we've had calves born in town and the exact same thing happens. The fence gets lined with people and they enjoy watching anything – calves or lambs.
Lloyd: I was thinking earlier, modern people don't get to see that. Are lambs more popular because they're little and cute?
Elaine: Yeah, I think that's true. They tend to be much more exuberant. Calves run around and jump, but lambs are just absolutely disgustingly adorable when they jump and they run and they chase each other around and they bounce around. So yeah, they have a lot of energy.
Lloyd: At least we know what to go look at now: disgustingly adorable lambs. How long does that exuberance kind of last? I mean it's March-April they're born, when do you expect them to stop jumping around?
Elaine: Well it's kind of interesting. They usually start behaving more like adults when they're about five or six months old. Over the years, we still will have sheep who are a year old who will just jump up in the air and act silly. They can do it later in their life as well.
Lloyd: Moderately delicate – if a ewe has difficulty lambing, is there anything can be done to help her along?
Elaine: Well yes, and that's a big part of shepherding, particularly with sheep. It's not a bad idea to kind of be around and just kind of keep track of what's going on. Because sheep who have multiple births – and we get twins about every other birth, so I tell people I get a lamb and a half per ewe – sheep who have multiple births, the more that are trying to come out, the more problems you can have.
Malpresentations are what you're worried about. The head of one lamb coming with the foot of another stuck next to it. You can't assume when you see a foot and a head together that they belong to the same lamb. But 95 percent of the time, the ewes really need virtually no help. Now actually this year we have already had two lambs that needed to be pulled. It's been kind of unusual this year.
Lloyd: Is that your job, or does someone else do that?
Elaine: Generally it's my job. The first one I pulled, it was awfully tight and I was kind of twisting the lamb. Sometimes if you have a lamb that's really tight, if you twist it a little bit, that just gives you enough room that it will come right out.
Lloyd: We've both used the word "pulled," what are we really describing?
Elaine: You grab the legs and you actually grab up above the knuckle, because that's a stronger point. You don't want to grab down by the feet and pull. You grab up above the bone, the kind of anklebone and pull there. What you're really doing, the lamb should come like it's diving into a swimming pool, with the feet out straight and the head between the feet. A lot of times what happens is the legs are back a little bit.
If you grab that foot and pull, you'll pull both legs out straight. And sometimes that's enough to make the lamb come. Other times, you need to kind of have a good steady pressure on it, and that ewe will give a good push and that's enough to bring it out. Sometimes you just have to really, really pull and hope that the ewe pushes at the right time. Sometimes you have to get the vet to come and help.
Lloyd: Actually that doesn’t sound too terribly difficult. But then on the other hand, I'm not doing it.
Elaine: It's not terribly difficult. The main thing is making sure that you don’t have two lambs trying to come at once. That's the hardest thing. Basically you reach in kind of next to the sheep and just kind of run your hand over the lamb and the lamb's head. You can feel where the shoulders are. You can feel if the feet and the foot that you've got and the shoulder are attached.
Lloyd: Now, if there is a leg from one lamb and the head from another, who do you pull?
Elaine: Well, generally, the easier thing to do is deal with the lamb whose head is out, because the head and the shoulders are the biggest part, and that's the hardest for the ewe to get out. A lamb can be born with both its legs back. That's a little harder for a ewe to push it out than if both the legs are forward, but if I was presented with that, I would push the leg that's sticking out back in. If I've got enough room, I would try to maneuver around with my hand and grab a hold of the legs from the lamb whose head is out.
Lloyd: How did you learn to do this?
Elaine: Well I grew up on a dairy farm, so calving and lambing are very similar because you've got the same kind of thing. They're coming in the same presentation. You can have multiple births, although in cattle it's a lot less frequent than it is in sheep. When I first started here at Colonial Williamsburg, I was very, very lucky and I went to the Cotswold Farm Park in England, in a little tiny town called Guiding Power. That's one of the biggest rare breeds farms in the world. They lamb about 600 ewes in eight weeks.
I was thrown in at the deep end lambing. That really was tremendously useful to me because I learned essentially, lambing can be like triage. This lamb needs this now, that lamb, although it's screaming, can wait. So it was real helpful because I learned what needed to be done immediately and what could, you know, kind of wait till you've got some time.
Lloyd: Six hundred in basically two months.
Elaine: Yeah. It was a lot of sheep in a really short amount of time. They also lambed in front of the public. I went to interpret and to kind of help them understand the best way to interpret what was going on. What I got from it was understanding lambing a lot better.
Lloyd: When you're lambing and you have all these people lining up on the fence, do they yell questions at you?
Elaine: Sometimes, yes. Generally what I try to do when a ewe is in labor, lying there pushing away, I try to walk along the fence and talk to people and tell them what's going on and say, you know, "She's in heavy labor now, she's pushing." Usually if everything's going fine, you see the feet come out. They'll come out and then they go back in. Then come out, and they go back in as she's pushing. I kind of describe to the folks who are there what's going on.
Lloyd: You went to England and you had 600 sheep. How many have you now?
Elaine: We put 20 ewes with the ram this year. There are three or four who I'm not sure are bred. Tomorrow I'm going to ask the vet if we can ultrasound them and see if they are in fact bred.