“Helper” Ewes – The doulas of the sheep ranch
By Kathleen Bean
Our incredibly hard working team of Peruvian herders check the ewes constantly, day and night, to be sure they are brought close to the lambing sheds when they are ready to give birth. As soon as they do, the mama and babies are brought inside to spend a few days in pens to keep the lambs warm and help ensure that mama and baby (or babies) are bonded before they go outside to stay in larger pens with other family groups.
This year I was struck by an aspect of the lambing process that I hadn’t fully appreciated before. Once the lamb is born, it is important that the babies are licked clean and dry as soon as possible. If a ewe has twins or triplets, and many do, she can only attend to one at a time; in our freezing temperatures, this can put the other babies at risk. This is where the “helper ewe” comes in. Very often, as a ewe is giving birth, another ewe will join her. Truly the doulas of the sheep band, this “helper ewe” will immediately begin licking one of the babies, helping ensure that they survive.
As some friends and I watched two different pairs of mamas and helper ewes clean newly born lambs last week, we reflected on the feminine instinct to care for the young and to support each other. Not that this is restricted to females – far from it. But, as we were a group of women that day, we shared a moment of gratitude for our own friendships, remembered the times we have mothered each other’s children, and felt great admiration for our faithful and sturdy ewes, who truly band together to raise their young.