At 4 o’clock in the morning the sun was already way up. Icelandic summer was inevitably coming. My alarm went off and without thinking too much I got up, put on my working clothes, overalls, boots and went to the sheephouse.
May in this farm is synonymous with lambing season. We had over 200 sheep that were supposed to have lambs, each sheep would have approximately two of them. During April, we worked hard to prepare the barn for this sheep baby boom. Once it’s off you have to spend a lot of time checking if there are any new lambs or if any sheep is about to have them soon. That’s why we would go early in the morning – me, Icelandic grandpa, his grandson or someone else from the family.
This time it was my turn and when I got there, one sheep already had two new lambs. Usually they would deliver on their own but from time to time we had to help them. That means putting on a glove and pulling the little ones out. And yes, it can get messy. I delivered four more lambs and at 7am went back home to get some more sleep.
It wasn’t until end of the season when I was left completely alone to take care of the rest of the sheep. There was only last six of them so it wasn’t supposed to be a problem. The family that I work for went to celebrate a graduation of the grandson and I went back to the sheephouse to check if everything is okay.
One sheep was about to deliver so usually I try to wait a little bit and see if it manages on her own and after a little while I would proceed to pull out the lambs myself. This one had a really big belly so I was thinking there might be at least two lambs. When I saw it wasn’t going out I put on a plastic glove and inspected the position. First, I felt the legs. I followed along to feel the head. It was enormous with little horns already making their own way. Just from the size of the legs and head I knew immediately it would be hard to get it out.
I took a deep breath and tried to reach as far as possible, to manipulate the body and see if there were any other lambs. I remember being confused at first. It felt like there was more than one, because I felt another set of legs. It didn’t strike me instantly that it was just one but in a very wrong position. For the most part I was shocked by the size of the lamb.
I tried to call different people from the family but none of them were available, so I went to get my friend and asked him to hold the sheep so I can pull stronger. I used a rubber band to tie the little one’s hooves to get a better grip of them. There was also another tool that has a string that you can put around the horns and then you pull both strings – one that’s around the hooves and the one that helps you with the head.
The problem is there is not enough space to manipulate the string freely and the placenta and all the liquids inside the sheep make it harder to secure the string properly. So sometimes it slips and it’s hard to just put the string around the horns.
My friend tried to calm the sheep while I was struggling to get the lamb out when I felt that something has changed. Usually you feel some sort of resistance or movement of the lamb. I looked at my friend and said: “Well… the lamb just died. But we still need to take it out.”
During the whole process, we were trying to reach anyone from the family on the phone. I didn’t have the phone number of the Icelandic grandpa, who I was certain would pick up the phone and come immediately. But without him I wasn’t sure what to do. Fortunately, after some time we’ve managed to reach his wife and after I told her what’s going on, they came back home in just 15 minutes or so.
But even the grandpa himself couldn’t do it, so he called his son and then after a lot of struggles and manipulation of the lambs’ position we finally got it out. It was dead just as I assumed but now we had to take care of the sheep. We put her in her own box with water, some hay and gave her antibiotics, hoping that she can handle the blood loss. When I got to the sheephouse few hours later, I found her lying motionless on the floor. The loss of blood was just too much for her.
And this is just one of many stories I have from the lambing season in Iceland. People tend to think of it as a pretty nice job, giving birth to cute little lambs but the month of May is full of blood, sweat and placentas. Everyone at the farm is tired and working hard so that stories like this don’t have to happen too often. And they usually don’t. To be clear – it was an extreme situation but it’s also the one I’ll remember the most. In the end, we managed to take care of more than 200 sheep and now when I sit on my porch, when the weather allows it, and I look at the hillsides with white and black and brown dots running around… it brings a smile to my face, knowing I helped those pesky little lambs start the life of their own.