Lambing Support

Our ewes have started dropping lambs, and it’s a very exciting time here at EEC Forest Stewardship. This is the first year I’ve had the help of our Kangal, Gill. He’s really been an amazing support as the season begins. I’m learning all kinds of new communications in bark, yelp, crooning, and howl. There are moment when I get it wrong, and wish I had not climbed out of bed in the middle of the night, but it’s my agreement as a 24hr. livestock steward and working partner with the sheep and dog- if only more producers could cultivate such awareness and connection. This working collaboration goes back thousands of years. Most of our work is instinctual, though Gill has a mush better sense of the animals, having retained his more primal instincts and sensitivities. I’m typing in front of this screen right now while he’s still out on the land patrolling, and his senses are many times more acute than my own. At night, he sleeps a few feet from the flock and knows their every rhythm. This awareness and instinct gave him the skill to know when a ewe was giving birth (he’d never experienced this before), and sent out a call for me to come.

The bark was new to me, in the night, as I lay hoping he would calm down, that it might just be another passing sound in the woods nearby, but the dog’s keen sense compelled. His call was steady and pleading, not loud and rapid like alerts, a bark ending on a higher note, sometimes crooned (a muted howl). Earlier that evening I had remarked to my partner that one of the older ewes looked ready to drop her lambs. Crawling out of the vestiges of sleep, warm bed, rest forfeit to obligation, a seasonal cycle I love and sometimes struggle with in the life of tending a living place. I was not suprised when, upon opening the from door, I heard more noise, a ewe bleating in her own rhythm, a birth song to her new offspring. They usually come in the night, like dark slimy nightmares if you don’t know what you are looking at. In the torchlight, a dark mass of curly brown hair was being nudged some what frantically by our grandmother ewe Hattie. She was only half way through her miracle of life bringing, hence the anxiety in her bleating. Gill was now quietly laying in his bed nearby, relaxed and calm. He had not been frantic at all, seeming to know it was all part of the natural cycle, and that I was now on the scene to stand watch.

The first lamb was still very wet, so I used a dry towel, on hand nearby for this occasion. I keep a stack in the barn during lambing season. The nights are still below freezing, and even in a barn, a newborn lamb can freeze if not dried off quickly. Hattie was doing her best, but labor still overwhelmed her body and she frequently turned to paw the ground in her contractions. I gently rubbed the afterbirth off the chocolate hairy mass, sexing it as a female- two holes under the tail, males have only one. She was shaking and quaking with life, the first few minutes acclimating to an alien environment she was dumped into without much warning. Watching this is an experience I recommend to everyone. It’s humbling, because the next thing that happens is in stark contrast to any human babies first few moments on Earth. The lamb struggles to stand. It’s pure instinct, spasming muscles in a survival struggle; thrashing, flimsy stilts supporting a rickety frame of barely developed skeletal sketch. In a few more minutes of experimental movement, the animal holds its self up on tittering edge, and then control falls across the bed of straw, collapsing in a pile again at the foot (hoof?) of its dam.

Twins are not unusual in sheep, and are preferable in trait selection. Usually, when a sheep has her first “joining” (exposure to a ram) with successful conception, she has only one lamb. Second time breeders will have two- or more, depending on breed, age, and countless other variables. Hattie is a mature breeding ewe, producing twins at EEC the past two years. Last year she threw two females, this year, she’s produced a male and a female- named Mork and Mindy. I helped deliver Mork. Hattie was tired, and it was easy for me to gently hold the producing hooves of the lamb as it began to come out. It’s not necessary to assist Katahdins, but Hattie is older, and she was laying down and looking stressed, so I helped- a little. Mork oozed out, flopping onto the hay in an awkward heap of jelly and blood. It’s not pretty, from what I’ve observed in birthing (including human), there’s a lot of body fluid and strangeness. The puddle of lamb was slurped up by his mother the moment she turned to face him. In that split second, she finds the umbilical chord and severs it with her teeth, then begins cleaning off the afterbirth, but more chaos ensues. Hattie now has two lambs, and cant see them both at once, so she bawls and turns back and forth, sniffing one, licking the other, and dancing around me.

Meanwhile, Gill continued to rest in his bed, and our new ram has been watching quietly from his stall too. Hattie has her twins, and I have to get them all into a safe little pen of their own before I can go back to my own pen to rest. Both lambs are now tottering around, and that’s enough activity for me to feel good about stepping away. I isolate the new little family unit in it’s own pen for bonding, and protection from other less careful ewes. The new mamma and her babes are corralled into a pen right next to Gill. He gently licks each lamb, sniffing and registering them into the flock. Then Hattie turns her bloody butt his way, and he supports in the best way a dog can. Afterbirth is still dripping out of her, and the dog enjoys a tasty treat while helping the old ewe clean up. This ewe was raised with a Kangal at her previous home, so she’s familiar with this ritual and the dog. Gill is also bread as a shepherd animal- I would not invite you to offer the bloody butt of your ewe to the family pet- it might get ugly. This instincts and bond between the two species also goes back thousands of years. They have a trust that not all sheep and dogs can share, and that’s very important to reference in this situation.

A few days after Hattie dropped her twins, Gill was barking at me again in the middle of the night. I jumped up, recognizing a new bark, and got dressed to head down to the barn, excited about more lambing. When I arrived on the scene there was no lambing in progress, but our new ram, King, had jumped in with the ewes and was covering Pepper, one of our sheep that had not been bred in the last season. She was eager to be a mom again, and King was happy to oblige, but I could not have them jumping around the same pen where lambs were resting with very pregnant ewes, so I corralled the lovers into another stall nearby, and thanked Gill for more great work in watching after his sheep. It amazes me that the dog knows when something is “off” and wants me to know about it. Though I must note that there are times when he barks, and I can’t tell what’s happening, so I go down to the barn in the middle of the night to find nothing out of place. This does not mean Gill is wrong to bark, it just means my human senses cannot pick up on something the dog is alarming about, and that’s my issue, not the dog’s. I am careful never to get upset with Gill when he is alarming- his bark is my safety gauge for the livestock, and predators are very real here in Western Washington.

We’ve fenced our pastures to keep Gill in, and avoid direct confrontation with predator species, as they have a right to be in the area too, and we want to avoid physical fights at all costs. Our livestock guardian dog is a partner, but not in charge. If he had it his way, he’d spend all night roaming the area, but he is tethered in the barn with his sheep for everyone’s safety. The barking is enough to deter, and alert me to any issue, though I will not always jump up and go outside when I hear him alerting. Often times there are coyotes way off in the distance crying, or someone just getting home late, which is out of the norm for the dog, so he lets us know something is different. This can seem tedious for some, and I would not recommend getting a Livestock Guardian Dog if you live in an urban or suburban environment, your neighbors will hate you, and the loud barking nuisance you brought home.

Kangals, like most LGD’s, are a serious working breed, which, if left without a real job, will find one trying to dig out of your small yard (anything under 4 acres) or attacking neighborhood dogs. I was on a trail hike with a friend, her infant son, and my Australian Shepherd (without my Kangal) a few weeks ago. We encountered a woman who shouted at us from quite a ways up the trail that she had an LGD with her and needed me to hold my dog so as not to let them fight. It was a completely out of control situation for that woman and her dog as they approached, and I was concerned for my friend and her child. The LGD was an Anatolian Shepherd- as the woman proudly proclaimed. I tried to be friendly, but also firm. I stated that I too had an Anatolian (Kangal), but I knew since the breed can be very aggressive towards other dogs, that he stayed at home with his flock, working. She got defensive- no suprise- (remember, we are on a public trail), and said she was at home, that this land was hers, and her dog had a right to be there. My friend and I hiked on by as calmly as we could, and my pup Valley was a model K9 citizen, sticking to me like glue and ignoring the woman and her dog- who was going unhinged and jumping to eye level as the owner struggled to hold the collar. It was a train wreck, and I felt sorry for the woman, but even more so the dog. Kangals are not pets, and should not be in suburban home environments without a job.

Gill and King meet

Even with all the instincts, Gill is still an LGD in training, meaning we spend a lot of time observing, communicating, and training together. When we brought home the new ram, King, it was important to recognize that there was an introduction period between sheep and dog. The two were allowed to sniff and greet each other through the fence, before being face to face in the fenced paddock. Things went very smoothly, and the experience was another lesson in pure instinct. The ram has never been with LGDs, yet he tolerated Gill almost immediately. The two were acclimated, and King folded into the herd nicely. These slow acclimation sessions should happen with any livestock we introduce to the land we’ve given to Gill as territory. He is not allowed into the living area where people are most active- he is not a personal guard dog, just a stock guardian. We don’t want him to think the human territory is part of his patrol, though some people do invite their Kangal to wander the property as a whole, especially at night. Because EEC is a teaching forest, we must create space where people can gather and observe without the need for a dog to be present. Gill does alert bark when someone enters at the gate from our guest parking, but he is removed from the entrance and unable to directly engage with visitors. Keeping clear boundaries with Kangals is crucial to cultivating a healthy dog and comfortable guests.

One of the most challenging partnership agreements between Gill and EEC is his barking. The Kangal, like most LGDs, alert barks. This can be a few short yips, or turn into hours of continual yelps. Guarding instincts “turn up” during the nights, so if neighbors or anyone living within a few miles are light sleepers, there’s bound to be conflict over the Kangal. I’m writing this after my second near sleepless night as Gill learns about changing Spring sounds around the farm. He starts up at dusk with the frog chorus, and went till about 1:00am last night. Then he started up with the owls at 3:30am this morning. It’s a challenge for me as the clueless human who cannot hear, smell, or feel any presence of danger, though there could be a cougar or bear just beyond sight in the woods- Gill knows, and I have to trust his guardianship, especially during the night when I’m “off duty” -in the sense of getting some sleep, well, trying to. Hopefully this continual barking is just an episode related to the seasonal changes. I would say it is most unusual to have him “singing” all night. Our work together is a duet of experience and learning, and I’m so grateful for this new layer of support at EEC.

1 thought on “Lambing Support”

  1. Love how you describe the team work on EEC.
    Thank you for writing about it – it such an instructive and interesting manner.


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