We were well into our second week of lambing when Jacob arrived. Nearly every pen was full; mothers and offspring doing well. Jacob was one of a pair of Suffolk cross lambs from a greyfaced ewe, and it was immediately apparent that all was not well. While his sibling staggered to his feet and nuzzled into his mother’s udder, Jacob remained rather awkwardly on his bottom. On my return from checking all the other new arrivals, nothing had changed. Leaning over the gate of the pen, I tried to plonk him on his feet, only to be interrupted by our rather matter of fact ‘herd, who muttered something about “that yin looks like it needs a dunt on the heid”, which translated means, he needs a knock on the head.
Grey faced (or mule as they are often called) ewes are kind and devoted mothers and usually produce at least two lambs. My husband and I never put a ewe away to the field with more than two lambs, so there was always a pen of orphans needing bottled until a substitute mum came along. After topping up all my charges I picked up Jacob and sat him on my knee, while I encouraged him to suck. The result was quite astonishing. Never before or since, have I witnessed a little lamb with such unbelievable sucking prowess. If I tried to get him to catch breath for a few seconds he would roar the lambing shed down. By day two he still could not stand, so we released his mother and healthy sibling to the field and kept Jacob back. I have worked with animals for most of my life, and have never been stupid enough to let sentimentality cloud my senses, but there was something about this little fellow that made me feel he deserved a chance, so I ignored the mumbled mutterings from our ‘herd Robbie, and secretly embarked upon an intensive course of lamb physiotherapy. I produced an old orange box and plonked my patient with his legs straddled across either side, I did this regularly for five minutes or so, while I checked all the other inside pens and gave them fresh turnips and feeding. I was eventually caught out by Robbie, who looked at me as if I was “half daft”. This performance went on for many days, accompanied by regular leg rubs and every other piece of T.L.C. I could muster. Obviously nourishment was never an issue because this wee chap could suck for Scotland.
It was a wonderful Spring that year, (roughly twenty years ago), one of the few conducted without a big waterproof coat. One sunny morning Jacob took his first faltering steps. It had taken me about two weeks, but I was elated. He toddled around in the sunlight which was streaming into the large open area of the lambing shed. His tiny feet rustled in the straw, which in the evenings housed the remaining pregnant ewes. Everyone who stuck their head into the shed that day commented on my triumph, and of course my daughters shared my delight. But life is never simple, so even after we managed to “set him on” to an adoptive ewe, Jacob still preferred to suck a bottle.
The great day came when Jacob tottered out of the shed and into a small paddock. We kept him close by in case he fell over, and couldn’t get back up on his feet. Although now mobile, his steps were still stunted, and he fell over quite easily. I kept out of sight as much as possible, for fear of him following me instead of his mobile milk bar. Sadly my joy was to be short lived. We had to eventually move him and a few other slightly decrepit ewes and lambs into a much bigger field, which was a good distance from our home. From the shelter point of view it was excellent; hedges, trees and the back of the dry stone dykes, provided superb cover from icy wind and rain, should it so happen, but the ground was quite rough, and that worried me.
Everything seemed okay for at least the first week, then one morning he was gone: gone without trace. I searched, and searched but all to no avail. His mother seemed neither up nor down, but then he had never been that close to her, always preferring a bottle, if the chance had been there. I enlisted the help of a good friend, who was a skilled tracker, and we both came to the conclusion that our little friend had been snatched by Mr. Fox. There were several tiny clues to his fate, like the traces of wool on the bottom of the fence, where there was evidence of a slight space, and also, and worst of all, remains of milk where Foxy had torn into his tummy.
I had always accepted that his tendency to fall over might be his death warrant, but with four young girls and 650 acres I still gave him my best shot. I felt sick to the pit of my stomach, sick that I had failed him, but as my husband pointed out, at least I gave him some life, even if it was short lived.
I don’t know why I called him Jacob, other than the association with flock of sheep, but for me, few animals have made such a profound impression on my life. He represented perseverance, courage, patience and most of all love, and for that I will always be glad that I knew him.