Weaning day is always one of the saddest days of the year for me. I love the springtime, when from March through June our mothers and lambs are together on pasture. This year when we all have been sheltered here on the ranch, barely leaving at all, it has given me joy every day to watch all of our little families, to hear the mothers call the lambs and to see their lambs, some of them almost as big as their mothers, come running, sometimes lifting their mother off the ground as they nuzzle in to nurse. I remember my father telling me that one of his happiest sights was to see a ewe with twin lambs, each nearly as big as her, tucked in on each side of her, nursing. You would think the mothers would be fed up by the time the lambs have grown so large, but most of them are just as loving and protective as when their lambs were tiny.
Each year, I get to know which families are the tightest. This year there was our black East Friesian ewe, Good Girl, was never to be seen without her black “Friedale” triplet lambs trailing behind her. Celeste, our oldest Romney ewe, with her big booming baa, seemed to call to her lambs whenever they strayed from her side. Taylor, who was an ambivalent mother at first, became tightly bonded to her twins. And Emylou was such a good mother to her quads–that little family seemed almost inseparable.
After three months, though, it is time to wean. The lambs are no longer getting that much of a benefit from nursing, and after three months of lactation to feed their lambs, the mothers are spent and need to get their weight and condition back. Still, the enormity of breaking up all those loving families always weighs heavily on me and I dread weaning day for weeks.
Thursday, as we ran everyone through the corrals to separate them, we weighed the lambs, and their weights were really good. The majority of the lambs weighed 70 to 90 pounds and quite a few were over 100 pounds. Of course there was some crying on the part of the lambs and their mothers on that first afternoon and evening after being separated, but by Friday evening, everyone seemed to be moving on. Friday we had the lambs back in the corrals for some vaccinations, and they were calm and so grown-up looking. We opened the gate from the hilltop pasture to the lamb park and the lambs headed out to graze the lamb park as they had done for the past two months with their mothers, with faithful Orbit following along to protect them.
We also saw a beautiful bit of instinctive guardian behavior in Oliver and Oakley, our two new guardian pups. They were both in the middle pasture with the flock of 11 dry ewes who have been acclimated to them, and we are going to keep them with that flock all summer to help them mature with a group of sheep that aren’t frightened by their occasional puppy antics. The middle pasture shares a fence with the front pasture, where we put the mother ewes after separating them from their lambs. Oliver and Oakley assessed the situation and decided that those ewes in the front pasture needed protecting too, so they split up. Oakley stayed with the dry ewes, and Oliver sat at the gate to the front pasture, keeping an eye on the mother ewes on the other side. It never ceases to amaze and thrill me to see the complex protection behaviors that are genetically wired into the brains of these dogs who have been selected for these traits for centuries.