On December 11th, 2016, we were reminded that we share our land and our life with many creatures who have lived in this environment for many generations. John went out to feed the sheep their breakfast and found Reyna, our beautiful 2015 ewe, lying on her back dead. She was in the corral, gates closed, and all the rest of the sheep were untouched. But Reyna had been killed and dragged several feet. Apparently her killer had intended to move her to a more sheltered space to feed off her. Perhaps the killer slipped away when John opened the door; perhaps the dog had barked when he noticed activity in the corral–at any rate, the killer was not around. Stunned, we studied the dead sheep and the surrounding area, wondering what kind of creature could have done this. A coyote would not have been able to drag the sheep. Any dog-like creature would have chased, and all the sheep would be showing signs of stress. This had been a silent killer.
My sister Cathi and I studied the muddy ground nearby, and she was the first to spot the tracks.
Still shocked, I called the vet’s office. I wanted to know if anyone had reported predators in our area, and I wanted to know if I should call anyone to report our loss. They had not heard of any recent predator losses, but suggested I call the Department of Fish and Wildlife. An hour later, Bud Weaver, tracker for the Department, confirmed our suspicions: this was the work of a cougar.
The most amazing thing is, two hours later, Bud and his hounds had treed and shot the cougar. He was not a healthy-looking animal and we do not have lovely pictures of him. This is the first and only time I have seen a cougar in the 31 years we have lived here.
In January, we give the ewes a booster shot to prevent overeating diseases, and we check their bellies and udders to assess how close they are to having lambs. With hand shears, we cut away some of the wool that can make the udder hard for baby lambs to find. This year, we noted that a few ewes were observed consorting with Robert in early and mid October. Add five months and you can predict that lambs will arrive in March.
Sure enough, they did: all but one arrived within 10 days of each other, then there was a gap of about three weeks until the very last baby was born to a first-time mother. We have six females and two males. All were good sized, generally over 10 lbs. However, we lost two big, apparently healthy lambs during the birth process. Most likely they got stuck and the cord was pinched. Life on the farm definitely has its ups and downs.
It was a beautiful day for the October pumpkin harvest and as always, we had family and friends out to pick the pumpkins, wash the mud off, draw straws to determine the order of selection, then choose pumpkins to take home. After we harvest, we have some hearty harvest soup and then load the cars.
This year we realized we have more sheep than we need. We had 9 or 10 breeding ewes and expected they would all have lambs, but 5 of the 6 yearlings also produced lambs. And the fleeces from all these lovely animals were filling the studio. Marilyn spent the summer washing fleece after fleece. John sold a few fleeces to his fellow weavers, and Marilyn sold some fleeces and some roving at her summer spinner’s retreat. But still, there was a mountain of fleece in the studio. We were determined to reduce our flock to 6 breeding ewes and to market our fleeces.
For us, sometimes the best way to market live animals is to load them all into the truck and take them to the auction yard. Shearer Beth had taken five lambs, but we still had some older ewes and additional lambs that needed to go to market. So one Sunday afternoon we loaded all these fine animals into the truck and off they went. Prices were good that week, and now our flock is down to just 12 animals. 4 of those are market lambs that will ultimately go into the freezer, leaving us with a flock of 8.
We’ve never tried to sell fleeces at the big gatherings. But the Oregon Flock and Fiber Festival makes it easy. You just show up Sunday morning with your table and your fleeces, pay an entrance fee, and the people start coming at 9:00. We had five fleeces, all washed, with shiny white locks and nice information sheets that told the weight off the sheep, after skirting, and after washing. Three were lamb fleeces, one was from Robert the ram, and one was a ewe’s fleece. At 10:00 we still had them all and I began to worry. Were there too many Romney fleeces to choose from? Were the other fleeces less expensive–I had not spied on the competition to find out what they were charging. Did people only want the exotic Wensleydales and Jacobs? But it turns out other people shop like I do–they walk around and look at everything, then plunge. By noon all our fleeces were gone and we were heading for home. Income from wool sales this year: about $500. Income from flock sales: about $1000. Beautiful woven rugs, shawls, knit items: can’t value them. Home grown lamb in the freezer: yummmmm.
What wonderful tomato-onion-kalamata olive salads we had, night after night! Tasty fresh broccoli, grilled zucchini, bell peppers, green beans, and corn. Then there were the pears, the beets, the blackberries, more tomatoes, corn and beans, hot peppers–all to be processed and stored for later. The warm dry summer meant that we were surprised at times: abundant tomatoes, but not very big. Failed crops of strawberries and raspberries but gallons of wild blackberries. Having a garden is always an interaction between the human, the climate, the soil, the plants themselves, and all the other creatures large and small who want to consume those plants.
John has been working to prepare the garden for several weeks, tilling whenever the weather was dry, planting early peas [no luck] and shaping the raised beds. Marilyn started seeds indoors early in March so that we have lots of baby tomatoes, cabbage and its relatives, onions, peppers, basil, and cosmos.
After a sunny week and a dry Saturday, almost everything is planted and the soaker hoses are in place for irrigation. The beans are up, onions are perky, tomatoes and broccoli are peeking out over their plant protectors. Now it is time to do battle with the slugs, moles/voles, and morning glory so that the garden can thrive.
It is always thrilling when the coast range elk herd appears in the neighborhood. Silent and numerous [more than 30], they graze on the neighbor’s hill, then hop the fence to eat the bottom land grasses, then move on up the valley past our pastures. We theorize that they don’t come into our land because the grass is more plentiful where sheep haven’t grazed. [There have been exceptions, of course, and fence repairs to prove it]. In this picture, one of the elk is grazing right next to a huge cutout of an eagle, placed there by the farmer who is trying to get a crop from this hill. Good luck….
Raven had her twins on Thursday morning. Two boys, one black and one white, same as Ruth a few days before. And finally, Saturday morning, Ruby gave birth to a 13 1/2 pound single boy to complete the 2014 lamb flock. All easy births, all strong lambs, no midwifery required this year.
Now we have a pack of 10 lambs bouncing around in the pasture. In addition to chasing after each other and then suddenly diving under their mothers for a snack whenever summoned, they have this unique little “popcorn” dance. A lamb will simply pop up in the air, leaping with all four legs somehow. It seems like a gesture of pure joy, coming from lambs less than a week old.
I usually sleep in on the weekends and John gets up to feed the animals. But this morning they were noisy at 7:30. I could hear rain on the roof and I knew they were out there wondering when breakfast would be served. So I put on boots and coat and wandered over. All the sheep were standing outside the stall, under cover. Melissa was in the stall with two newly born lambs.
The lambs seemed relatively dry and good sized. It was easy to get Melissa into the lambing pen, which had been set up with fresh straw and water yesterday after Clarissa and her lamb were released. Once in the pen, I checked the lambs, dipped their navels in iodine, and weighed them, The boy weighed 10 lb 12 oz, and the girl 9 lb 11 oz. They are a peaceful trio.
Later in the day: It has been raining steadily, but most of the sheep went up the hill to graze anyway. When I looked into the barn, the mothers and their lambs were resting in the stall, keeping Melissa and her babies company in the pen nearby. Ruth, who seems likely to be the next to deliver, was the only other sheep in the barn. We wonder if there will be any colored lambs this year. Last year all had white wool, leading us to think perhaps Robert does not have a recessive gene for color that could combine with Ruth and Raven’s color genes to produce dark lambs. Stay tuned….
It must be wonderful to be a pregnant sheep. No anxiety, no obsession about every little kick or twinge you feel as the time for birth draws near. You live in your body, responding to its changes. As your belly fills with babies, you lie down carefully and grunt or pant as the bony little legs shift around inside and the packages of lambs compress your lungs and stomachs.
You follow your routines of resting, eating, chewing cud, and resting again until the great long muscles begin to contract. Something makes you want to paw at the ground to create a hollow. Something makes you feel like licking. You turn circles as your own powerful muscles force you down and then pull/push, pull/push to expel the lamb. You can’t see it, you just feel that need to push. First the nose appears and some front feet, diving position. The big lump of shoulders takes some time to work through, then the rest gushes out.
You feel relief, and stand up. Then you notice what looks like a plastic bag moving on the ground behind you. You are curious, and that urge to lick returns just as the lumpy bag begins to thrash around, freeing itself from the sac and sometimes beginning to holler as soon as its sticky head can separate from all the fluids and other wet parts. You make small sounds constantly as you lick the fluids off the baby. In ten minutes, the baby lamb is on its feet, searching for that very first meal of colostrum.
On February 20, Rebecca gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. We were not home at the time, but the workers remodeling our mudroom noticed one lamb around 10 am and a second one around noon. The boy weighed a little over 12 pounds, and the girl almost 11. They are peaceful in their pen.
Melissa seems likely to be next. She hung around the stall this morning before joining the others on the hill.
We had our first lambs on February 20th last year as well! How’s that for consistency? Five more births to go.
is a small family farm raising Romney sheep for wool and related products.