Lambing used to be the busiest and most satisfying time on our farming calender. But since we changed from breeding to finishing stock several years ago it is now just something we observe over other people’s fences.
It wasn’t easy and I don’t miss the bad seasons when wet and cold weather proved too much for new-born animals and the slink piles mounted up at gates. But I do miss the pets.
I had occasional contact with pet lambs as a child during visits to farms when we town kids delighted in feeding orphans but it wasn’t until I spent a year on Great Mercury Island that I had one of my own.
The first was so frail when rescued she couldn’t even bleat. I called her Hush. It was a name which was not without irony when she regained her voice and made good use of it under my window at dawn.
The next orphan I adopted was the ugliest lamb I’ve ever seen but what he lacked in looks was more than compensated for by character. He loved people and whenever he heard voices he’d turn up to share the action.
Unfortunately he had no respect for privacy or property and came to an untimely end after wandering into a farm worker’s house once too often.
When I married my farmer several years later easy-care lambing had been introduced on the theory that mortality was lower when sheep were left to their own devices than when disturbed by people. Some strays still turned up at home to be warmed and fed but as soon as they were fit enough they were taken back to the paddock to be mothered-up with ewes whose own lambs had died.
However, easy-care lambing or not one of the pleasures of growing up on a farm is having a pet lamb so once our daughter was old enough to look after one we adopted an orphan each spring.
How long they stayed after weaning depended on the strength of fences separating farm and house because once a pet found its way into the garden it would be banished to the back paddock.
But Rainbow was an exception, partly because by the time she arrived a stone wall provided a sheep-proof barrier between the lamb paddock and the garden but also because she was special.
Rainbow turned up with several other orphans and from the start she stood out from the flock. There was something about her appearance and behavior that told us this was no ordinary lamb.
If it’s possible for a sheep to have personality then Rainbow did. She was gregarious, engaging and great company. When we were in the garden which bordered her patch or at the clothesline over her fence Rainbow would appear and greet us with a friendly “baa”.
A veteran of four school pet shows she had an impressive collection of awards including winner of the lead and drink race and the fancy dress competition. She also performed for visitors, answering to her name when called, taking food from our hands and posing for photos like a professional.
Maternity complications in her third spring nearly proved fatal but despite my farmer muttering about “dragging a vet out to a pet sheep”, professional care from one who happened to be attending a cow on the property at the time ensured she pulled through and delivered a healthy lamb.
The new mother, her lamb and Cecil, the previous year’s pet, formed a happy trio until one day when, to our great distress, we discovered Rainbow dead in the paddock.
There were other lambs in subsequent springs but none has been quite like Rainbow.