We expected lambing time to be cold, but on one day Daddy came home to vicious winds blowing ice and snow, and he still had to check on the late gestation ewes. Sheep are not intelligent but are predictable and they prefer having lambs during the worst possible weather.
A little later, Daddy came in with mud on his boots, snow sticking to his hat and a newborn lamb nestled under the front of his coat. When she saw the lamb, apparently dead, Mama knew what to do. She threw some newspaper over the rug in front of the gas heater, grabbed a dish towel and took the lamb from Daddy so he could go back outside and finish his chores.
In my six-year-old know-it-all wisdom, I decided that it was a waste of time to fool with such a clearly expired, six pound package of frozen lamb. Mama had no such thought. She wrapped the lamb in the dish towel, rubbed it dry and set it down near the fire. She called me over and told me to keep drying it and turning it so the heat could get to all parts of the lamb-sickle.
While Mama warmed milk on the stove and fixed a baby bottle, I kept warming the lamb despite my reservations. Mama was a small lady and very limber. She was a world-class squatter, so it was no problem for her to bring the milk-filled nipple to the lambs nose and lips.
At first, the milk dribbled to the floor, then a leg twitched. Mama rubbed milk into the lamb’s mouth. The suckling instinct of mammalian newborns is amazing. The lamb’s little lips and tongue attached to Mama’s finger which she quickly replaced with the nipple. Within minutes, the lamb was up, walking and soon back in the barn with its mom.
Sheep don’t breed in the summer, but when the days get shorter and the temperatures drop, the ewes get ready, the rams get randy and tupping happens. Then, about five months later, it’s lambing time. Ewes often deliver twins and triplets are not rare. Every lamb is important, so shepherds spend a lot of time with the sheep to make sure each lamb survives.
I was managing the University of Kentucky’s reproduction research flock, which was well-known for having big lamb crops. The average lambing rate when I started was 1.75 lambs per ewe and lambing started in mid-December. Mama didn’t like for me to miss family Christmas to stay in a sheep birthing barn, so the next year I held the rams back in the fall so lambing wouldn’t start until January.
It was great to have Christmas at home, but when I got back to Lexington, I was soon dealing with more baby lambs than I ever imagined. We had a few single births, but mostly twins and trips. I checked the ewes in the evening, the middle of the night and in the morning. The ewes and I worked together to save every lamb. We ended with an average of 2.25 lambs per ewe. I should have been proud, but I was too worn out.
Lambing time is not easy for people or sheep. Calving time, done right, is almost as difficult. Foaling time is rife with tension. Farrowing starts as a drama that ends with a count. All are soon followed by proud mamas, tired people and many, many happy, hoppy babies.
The woods are different in the winter because trees without leaves are like people without clothes. It’s all out there, for bad or good. With people my age, naked is mostly bad but bare trees reveal beauty and truth.
A walk in the winter woods is easier because you can see where you are going. Without weeds the rocks and stumps are visible which makes walking safer. And no snakes! I like snakes, but I have an aversion to stepping on the ones with poison fangs.
Our Tennessee hills offer some beautiful scenery but leaves often block the view. We have a high hill that shows almost nothing in the summer, but now you can see down the Cane Creek Valley all the way to the skyline of Petersburg.
On a clear day, winter sunsets are amazing. I’ve heard that sunrises are nice, but I don’t get up that early.
Many of my friends and family get up and go hunting while it’s still dark. They tell me it’s soul-stirring to watch the emerging eastern glow until the first sun rays break over the horizon.
I tried it once. I put on long johns, then added layers until I could barely walk. I carried a rifle so I’d look like a hunter. I found a nice, dry place and made a comfortable little nest. Then I fell asleep. A deer or squirrel could have peed on me and I wouldn’t have known it.
Trees look different without leaves – it’s like you can see their bones. Old, large Oaks remain majestic unclothed. Their lower branches could be large trees on their own.
Maples, sometimes called Sugar Trees, make me wonder about harvesting Maple Syrup, but I it looks like cold work to me. I’ll let the New Englanders keep it – I prefer honey anyway.
Cedars keep their leaves, or needles, and I appreciate the green color they add to my woods walk.
Then there’s the magnificent, tragic Ash. It’s a breathtaking tree, winter or summer. It grows straight and tall and makes beautiful lumber for flooring and furniture.
Ash is the best wood for making baseball bats. Most of the great sluggers from Joe DiMaggio to Roger Maris and Mark McGuire used Ash Bats. Babe Ruth swung Ash bats weighing forty-six ounces. Ty Cobb’s were carved by a coffin maker. Ted Williams personally selected the Ash lumber that the Louisville Slugger folks used to make his bats.
But, for now, the noble Ash has struck out. A little green beetle bug is driving the Ash trees to extinction. This year’s baseball post-season was the first to have zero Ash bats in use. Even worse, watching the bark peel and brance from my dying and dead Ash friends makes my winter walks a little bit sadder.
Warren Gill has released a new book, called Princess of Horses. It is an adult fiction novel that can be purchased online (Amazon and other websites). Signed copies can be purchased in Fayetteville at Book Inn on the square, and in Petersburg on the square in Colt Show Antiques, The Junk Shop, and the Thread. Also, the Petersburg Community Library in the Morgan School building.
Warren Gill has fifty plus years of professional involvement including a Ph.D. in Animal Science. Animals have been essential to his career and most of his hobbies and interests.