Lambing: a fulfilling EMS experience
Ever since I've had my heart set on veterinary medicine, my head has been filled with dreams of all the amazing places and animals I would get to see.
I've dreamt of orangutan centres in Indonesia, pictured myself with manatees in Belize and alongside elephants in Thailand – and I still do! As vet students we get a unique opportunity to experience these crazy things and call it work experience, but I think in all my excitement for the exotic, I forgot some of the most important and fulfilling work experience of all – lambing. Interestingly enough, this essential preclinical experience occurred only 10 minutes down the road from where I grew up in the middle of Scotland. The Christies have a family farm, with a herd of Charolais cows, some Texel sheep, two cats, two border collies, and a flock of pedigree Suffolk sheep.
As I was on my way to meet them on a miserable winter day that should really only have been spent in bed, I was filled with that pre-work experience cocktail of nerves, excitement, and the knowledge that I was going to be very tired, very soon. More than anything, though, I wanted to show them (and, even more so, myself) that I was capable and not some incompetent nuisance. Hopefully, I could relieve some of the countryside stresses that haunt and bless that time of the year.
The 60 Suffolk ewes due to lamb during my stay had no consideration at all for when the vet student decided to show up, and lambing was already well under way. This meant throwing myself straight into every part of husbandry and gaining countless bruises from colliding with pen partitions as well as a stiff back from bending over the lambs. However, at the end of the day, the pervasive feeling was that invigorating satisfaction you get from doing hard physical work and getting instant results.
Lambing can be heart breaking and thrilling, and takes its toll physically and emotionally
I had not been there long when John, the farm owner, pointed out a ewe to me that was lambing. Deftly and without panicking the other sheep, he had the ewe on her side before I had even completely comprehended the situation. His experienced hands slipped some string behind the lamb's ears and around its neck before gently easing it out. Those first few seconds of touch and go spluttering when a newborn life gets its first glimpse of the world, as the steam still rises off its hot little body into the cold air, remain the most precious of all. Even after seeing it many times now, and even if it's two o'clock in the morning and so bracingly cold that you can't feel your own fingers, you cannot help but lose your breath at something that is momentarily between two worlds.
My first lambing experience the year before had been with mule ewes and so I arrived with the optimism that I had a basic level of competency when it came to lambing a ewe. I was wrong. Suffolks are a completely different ball game and I had a lot to learn. Not only did the value of these lambs add pressure, but Suffolks are more difficult to lamb than the mules I had worked with. Their reluctant offspring more often than not seemed to be positioned in anything but the way they should have been.
On several occasions I found myself awkwardly fumbling for my phone while pinning down a strong ewe with my pretty weak arms to call John to come and help. John has a lifetime experience of working with these animals and his way with them was instinctive and fluent. He could coax out even the most awkward of lambs with patience, determination and apparent ease that made me almost embarrassed to have woken him in the middle of the night. All the while he would explain what he was doing and answer my incessant and obvious questions.
"I am so appreciative to the family for inviting me into their home and making such an effort"
As vet students, we know how turbulent lambing placements can be. It can be heart breaking and thrilling, and takes its toll physically and emotionally. John, his wife, Diane, and their daughter, Julie, made a big impression on me. When you witness the compassion, knowledge and work ethic first hand, it is inspirational. Indeed, you cannot help but do your utmost to try to absorb every ounce of knowledge from people who have lived what you have been trying to learn from a book.
A worthwhile experience
I am so appreciative to the family for inviting me into their home and making such an effort, not just welcoming me, but ensuring that I got as much out of the experience as possible. I was so impressed by the commitment the whole family put into taking care of their animals. Not only did Diane provide delicious food for all of us and explain the workings of the farm; she was also out in the lambing shed day and night feeding the lambs. Julie, who was working full time, would also come home at night and help with the sheep. This reminded me of the important fact that, while I may have decided to become a vet to treat animals, it is people I will be working with. People whose livelihoods depend on their animals and who invest time, money, knowledge and so much care into them that it overwhelms me.
I have got a renewed passion for this wonderful career I've embarked on, and gratitude to the Christies for being the type of people that I can aspire to one day work alongside.
▪ This article was first published in JAVS, Spring 2014 and is reproduced with the permission of the editor.