Delivering 5000 baby lambs on the farm is a medical wonder

With a little care, ailing newborn lambs are back on their feet.
ROB TIPA/STUFF

With a little care, ailing newborn lambs are back on their feet.

OPINION: Unlike a nine-month wait for human babies, on sheep farms "maternity wards" get busy after only a five-month ewe gestation from autumn to spring.

On our place, 3200 ewes were scanned to be in lamb, some carrying multiples, so we were expecting nearly 5000 babies to be born over six weeks during September and October.

Pregnant mums are separated into green carpeted antenatal wards according to due dates of "early", "middle" or "late".

Triplet-bearing ewes in smaller mobs settle into the most sheltered and comfortable suites. Single bearing patients are placed in heavier stocking rates into more ventilated, less luxurious delivery rooms. Twin mothers are accommodated in mid standard motherhood facilities.

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Daily monitoring of wards is conducted by an experienced midwifery pair of blokes on bikes. Their well qualified obstetric assistants, Stella and Jack, Boogie and Mac, are not a team of paediatric nursing staff, but rather highly trained canines to quietly catch patients needing medical attention.

Sick or stray offspring are identified and transported back to base hospital in a warm insulated plastic box known as the lambulance. Ailing babies are then wrapped and placed in an incubator, which is a basic metal box, originally a gas canister cover but now, modified and with wheels attached, and this is an effective mobile multi-lamb facility. With hot water bottles and blankets it operates effectively to warm wet woolly babies and on fine days it can be wheeled to take advantage of sunshine.

Instead of IV drip set-ups, fluids and dextrose are administered to small sufferers by careful intraperitoneal injection and it's amazing how quickly fluid and energy replacement resuscitates weak little bodies. The motorbike shed is adapted to a temporary paediatric department with sawdust floor.

Mothers requiring assistance arrive at the intensive care unit by rescue bike-trailer rather than rescue helicopter. ICU is a mobile clinic on our front lawn with me operating as the on duty obstetrician.

Husband Jock planned well by marrying a vet because any patient he collects which is experiencing complications he can make a referral to the "specialist ". This is especially the case when symptoms identified are more messy and smell bad.

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Birthing problems can include twins stuck in the pelvis, babies presenting incorrectly and occasionally a mummified or deformed foetus. Unlike human infants arriving with a blunt head first, ewes have an advantage when delivering normally as lamb's long legs lead, followed by a head with a nice pointed nose.

The first breath of a newborn is just amazing. Often lambs need a gentle upside-down swing to expel mucus, and pinching the septum between nostrils initiates a breath response.

Sadly, in spite of the medical team's best efforts not all babies in our care survive.

The post natal department is a grating floored ward off the woolshed, and also incorporates a fostering wing where new families can be bonded.

Maternity wards are homes for births, and birth is always awesome. Every mother has memories of that unforgettable obstetric experience and welcoming new life.

While lambing still brings out the maternal instincts in me, I am forever grateful for our babies 17 and 19 years ago.

- Joyce Wyllie lives on a sheep and beef farm at Kaihoka, on the west coast of Golden Bay.

 - Stuff

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