Island Lambs Have a Spring in Every Step


The snow-covered pasture is a soft, white-on-white expanse curving under a cold, gray sky. Outside Pam Goff's old Chilmark barn, five black-faced, wool-plumped ewes mill around on the straw and mud, bleating in urgent, slow-motion coughs to the skinny-legged lambs nuzzling against them.

Inside the dark barn, two ewes have been separated with their new lambs in small makeshift pens referred to as jugs, giving them several days in which to bond. The ewes - a breed Mrs. Goff calls "Dukes County Mix" - stand placidly as the wrinkled, beige and speckled lambs scamper around them. Their bleating teaches the lambs to recognize their mother's voice, and gentle nudging on their nose and under their tail encourages nursing. Each jug has a creep, a small, latched door that allows the lambs access to food unchallenged by the ewes once they have all been released into the flock.

Lambing season has begun. It is a Vineyard tradition dating back to colonial times when the wool trade flourished in the Northeast and sheep farming was an Island industry second only to fishing. Where once Island sheep numbered in the thousands, today there are only about a dozen Island sheep farmers, a close fellowship that includes Allen Whiting, Clarissa Allen, Frank Fenner, Allen Healy, Pam Goff, Ann Hopkins (Mrs. Goff's mentor), Glenn Jackson and Flat Point Farm's Arnold (Arnie) M. Fischer Jr. and his sister, Eleanor Neubert.

As Mrs. Goff checks a ewe in the barn who has not yet lambed, English sparrows flutter out from under the beams. The flock from the yard has ambled inside and is pushing against her. She has 10 ewes including two older ones ("I probably should replace these two old ladies, if I can harden my heart"), and so far, nine lambs - fewer than in past years.

In anticipation of the lambing, she sleeps with a window open, listening for sounds from the barn and checking the ewes every four hours. And after almost 20 years as a shepherd, she still carries a worn copy of Ron Parker's The Sheep Book, An Illustrated Guide to Producing Wool and Meat for Home Use and Profit, into the barn to read under a flashlight when things seem to be going astray. "Clark [Mr. Goff] will hold the ewe down, while I try and figure out the position of the lambs. I look at the book and do a lot of cursing."

A small wicker basket holds her lambing supplies: a tube of Lamb and Kid Paste with lactic acid and a syringe applicator; tagging staples, which she doesn't use; pink, extra thick rubber bands for docking the tails, borrowed from Clarissa Allen, and plier-shaped stretchers to apply to them; a jar of iodine to sterilize the umbilical cord; lubricant; surgical gloves which she seldom uses; feeding nipples, and Ketostixs to test for pregnancy toxemia. She unzips a little girl's blue purse and pulls out a scalpel for Caesarian deliveries or castrations, which so far, she has not performed.

"You can tell if a ewe is struggling, or if she's in a lot of pain, if you hear them grinding their teeth. If you watch for an hour or two and nothing's happening, then you know they need help. Sometimes they'll sit down like a dog, and you know something's not right. That's the main thing," she says matter of factly, "you have to pay attention."

Normal birthing is very choreographed. The ewe stands alone, looking back at herself, pawing the earth as if to make a nest - sniffing, lying down, getting up and, Mrs. Goff says, "thinking about what's going on." Serious contractions build after a fluid is secreted and the ewe instinctively begins licking.

Quoting from Mr. Parker's book - which advises the shepherd to resist helping whenever possible because too much assistance keeps the ewe from realizing she has lambed and causes her to reject the lamb - Mrs. Goff reads, "Needless to say, not all the lambs have read this book so they naturally don't do everything I've said."

Birthing can take a few minutes or hours. The lamb receives oxygen through the umbilical cord and is cushioned by the fluid-filled sack. Within about an hour after contractions begin, the lamb, possibly still tangled in its sac, is typically born hoofs first, then the nose, in what Mrs. Goff describes as a "diving position." After the umbilical cord breaks, the ewe licks the lamb's nose to encourage its breathing and under its tail to stimulating its sucking instinct. In a matter of minutes the lamb stands and within the hour, begins nursing.

In the course of her lambing experiences, Mrs. Goff has delivered multiple births, fashioned prolapse harnesses and repositioned the lambs whose shoulders were too wide for their birth canals. More critically, she has had to completely reverse the birthing position of a lamb whose head was turned backward. "Pretty traumatic," she recalls.

She seems at the same time compassionately affected by the animals and realistically practical about nature's laws of survival. Sheep farming takes a lot of nurturing and accommodating, she says. "As they get older they get more aggressive, pushing, knocking into you, becoming a pain in the neck."

"It's all done with economics in mind," Mrs. Goff says. "But there's no profit in it by the time you end up." She explains that grain prices, which doubled in the 1970s, continue to rise; the breeding ram is rented from Flat Point Farm from early September to October; and in April, the shearer has to be brought in from off-Island. Pastures have to be divided into corridors so that the grass has a chance to recover from the grazing sheep.

And when the lambs are between six and eight months old, when their speckles have faded and their inquisitive little faces have become darkened like their mothers, they are trucked off-Island for slaughter. Mrs. Goff sighs, "I hate doing it. I might not even do it another year."

She walks back into the yard, pausing to let her gaze wander over the gray and white landscape and the clutter of farm equipment. The bleating sheep are being accompanied by the thin, whiny song of the chickens penned in the coop against the weathered fence.

It is a strange sound, her visitor comments.

"I consider it melodic," she says.