Shortly after Christmas 2017, we left Phoenix, Arizona and headed for Ballygawley, County Sligo Ireland. Similar to our WWOOFing in Tennessee, Sean and I set out to work on a sheep farm in Ireland, in exchange for room and board, only this time we knew the family! On our drive of the Wild Atlantic Way the previous spring, we stayed on the sheep farm in their amazing AirBnB and we really hit it off with the family. So when they invited us to come back and help with lambing, we jumped at the opportunity. They are the kind of people that you meet and just immediately feel connected to, despite any differences. So with only one-way tickets booked, we arrived in Ireland a few days before New Year.
Arriving at the Kirriemuir house, we immediately felt very welcomed and at home, so the transition to living with a family of four couldn’t have gone smoother. We hit the ground running and started working in the outdoor paddocks and indoor shed with the sheep the next morning. The shed is laid out much like the ward of a hospital with a Labor and Delivery unit, where expectant Mum’s wait, a newborn intensive care unit (complete with heat lamps), and a newborn unit full of the new Mum’s with their lambs. Our jobs included feeding sheep, watering sheep, mucking stalls, scraping pens, moving muck around, making formula and bottles to feed newborns, and of course, playing with all the sheep! We did all of it with gusto as we loved every minute!
When we first arrived, neither of us had ever seen anything being born so we knew this experience would be special, but it far exceeded any hopes or dreams we had. We arrived during a few days lull, so we got to ease into the routines of sheep farming without the excitement of labor and delivery. The first thing that caught us off guard was a newborn being cared for in the main house!
This poor little lamb had been born in a set of triplets, one of which didn’t live and for whatever reason, he wasn’t taken by his mother. So little “Gucci” as he came to be called, was living in a small box in the house, positioned next to the fire. When a farmer cares enough to bring an animal into their home, you know they are very compassionate and dedicated to every life. While this was a surprise it was also very touching. Gucci eventually got strong enough to live in the shed but became one of three “pets” that lived together without a mother. Gucci, Jaba, and Jordia all hold special places in our hearts!
The first lamb that was born after we arrived had to be delivered by a veterinarian, which is somewhat unusual. But the family didn’t hesitate to call for professional help when it was clear the birth was unusual and difficult for the sheep. Unfortunately, Ireland was struck this year for the first time by a midge caring Schmallenberg Virus that affected unborn sheep. During a particularly wet autumn, the pregnant mum’s were bitten by the insect (midges, mosquitoes) and while it didn’t adversely impact them it deformed their lambs. So the sheep didn’t labor on their own, and the lambs the vet delivered had deformed joints or were stillborn. This resulted in a 40% loss of lambs this year, on this farm alone. So the first lamb we saw born, while born alive was grossly deformed and wouldn’t live, so the vet put it down.
But none of the lambs born after that time had the disease! And the lambs began to come, one or two deliveries a day but usually in the middle of the night. I’m not sure how many lambs were born during our month long visit but I remember the last lamb born because I delivered her! After a morning feeding, Sean and I borrowed the family dog Jeff and went for a hike in the woods just behind the shed. We timed it so that we would be back in time for the noon feeding. Alison, our host, had just been in the shed to drop off some supplies on her way to town, but when we walked in Sean spotted a sheep that had birthed the head and one leg of her lamb. We quickly called for reinforcements but it would be some time before they arrived so we were given the instructions of “clear the mouth and do the best you can.”
Brilliant! That was just what we needed to hear, so Sean jumped to action, moved the Mum to the delivery area outside the pen, put on a meter long glove, slimmed up, and put his hand into the birthing canal to find the other leg. Despite his great effort, he wasn’t able to find the leg and the mum had become quite distressed. In the meantime, I was working to clear the mouth but the lambs head was cold and didn’t show any signs of life. I really thought she was dead, so I stuck hay/straw up her nose to stimulate a response but got nothing, so I placed my hand around her nose and gave a couple of gentle rescue breaths. Success, she responded with a little cough, so I knew she was still alive! So then I put on a big glove and went inside to find the other leg. The sheep was contracting really hard, so it was difficult to negotiate the small space but I was able to find the other leg, orient it towards the exit, and then very quickly the ewe lamb came out.
That was quite a joyful and rewarding experience for Sean and I both!!! The little ewe “Lizzy” lived and her mum was okay. Alison arrived back at the shed shortly after the lamb was born and was very proud of our efforts.
Everything she had taught us about birthing lambs had really paid off! She’s a wonderful teacher, explaining not only how to do things but why. Asking us to just do the best we could, was such compassionate and loving instruction in a seemingly life or death situation. And I can’t imagine how vulnerable and helpless a feeling it was for Alison, knowing that the life of her sheep and lamb were in our hands. But with total support and trust, she very calmly said the simplest thing, which was exactly what we needed to hear. I learned a lot more from that experience than just how to deliver a lamb. I learned how to gracefully and compassionate surrender control, and I learned about love and trust!
But our trip wasn’t all sheep farming all the time. Because we were there for New Year’s Eve we got to party in an Irish pub with just the locals. We hiked nearby trails, visited the most amazing surfing town, and enjoyed the culinary delights in the city of Sligo. But my favorite day out was in Strandhill, a small coastal surf town that boasts six separate surf schools! Just above the town is Queen Maeve’s Grave which can be seen from miles around on a clear day. The trail to the top begins meandering through sheep grazing fields, then quickly jumps into a forest so dense it blocks the sun. Then before you know it you’ve popped above treeline onto gentle rolling hills that have the best view of the beaches below. This is a special place and if you love surfing, they’ve got amazing waves that will rival the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii. Think 40-50′ tall rollers!
We had so many amazing experiences in Ballygawley! Spending time with the Graham Family, working with the sheep, and exploring the County Sligo area. For both of us, this clarified our desire to work with animals as part of our day to day life. While we don’t want to work with animals raised for meat, we’d like to find a way to work with animals in a way that serves our community and gives back to the animals. So that’s our next adventure!