The frozen grass glistens like the floor of a crystal palace; cracked hither and nether by the hoof prints of early morning activity. Steam rises where fresh dung has splattered giant pads of desecration. Somewhere a beast bellows looking for its calf only to raise a reply from a ewe on a mission of shared intensity. Miles away, I hear the faint sounds of a semi-trailer climbing the hill toward Hamill’s corner. I work the gears in my mind. It’ll be three minutes before I give him the signal to trumpet his air-horn. That’ll raise the cockatoos from the trees and momentarily jolt every sheep and cow that has found sanctuary against the roadside fence.
Two warbling magpies hop on the gravel path that leads toward the shed; and as I make my way along it, in the shadows of some giant pines that block the pathetic warmth of the early morning sun, I reach down and grab a handful of ammo. I adopt the stance of a baseball pitcher, take aim with my index finger and let’em have it. The gravel spreads like shot, but there are no casualties, at least not yet. Then I sprint, kicking up a little loose gravel upon launch representative of the great power in those steal springs that are my legs. Before the magpies have settled on the upper branches of the pines, I’ve successfully put a safe distance between me and the potential of an aerial counter attack. It’s swoopy magpie season.
Back on mission, I follow a sheep track toward a water trough. I’m looking for ewes having difficulty lambing. The trough is a likely spot for one to be laying cast. From a distance, I see little puffs of dust and the frantic movement of black hooves above the line of the trough; then a crow. It pops up from behind the trough and lands delicately on its concrete rim. It bounces; just once but intently. He’s going for the eyes, hers or more likely those of a half protruding lamb.
“Hey! Get out of that!” I bawl; then run toward the scene of untold misery madly flailing my arms, “Hey! Go on. Get out of that! Hey!”
I never say, “Shoo!” I’ve long since learnt, virtue of my mother, that it is completely useless at frightening anything or anybody from their intended purpose. I look to the ground for something to throw but there is nothing and the crow, which would normally be timorous, makes a last-ditched attempt at garnering an eyeball; then flies off to a nearby gate post where it waits expectantly of any morsels to follow.
I round the trough and find a not unexpected scene – the mother bleeding from the eye and the half muzzle and single hoof of a lamb protruding from her rear end. First I check the ewe’s eye. It seems fine. The crow, for all its efforts, has only pecked at the edges of the socket so there is blood but little real damage. I stroke the ewe’s wooly head. Don’t ask me why. Then I attend to the lamb. First I check to see if it’s alive by putting a finger in its mouth. It instinctively sucks. We’re in business. I need to wash my hands. The water in the trough is covered in a thick layer of ice. On my knees, I clench a fist and thump the ice twice before it cracks; then I dip my hands into the freezing water and scrub them as best I can. My teeth start chattering and my hands turn purple.
I know what needs to be done. I have to push the lamb’s head back in a little and feel around for the other leg. Lambs come out two legs and a head first. If unsuccessful, I’ll have to try and pull him out by a single leg and risk tugging it clean off. I’m no veterinary surgeon. I pull up the sleeves of my windcheater to the elbows then push the lamb’s tiny head back into the vulva. It’s hot in there. I feel my hand thaw at blood temperature in all the placental fluid, almost burning, but my fingers are now nimble and they feel around viscerally for the other front leg. It’s a tight squeeze between the ewe’s contracting uterus and the lamb’s shoulder but I find the wayward limb and gently turn it forward. It’s a slippery little bugger. Now I’ve got him perfectly positioned. I clasp a hoof in each hand and pull out and downwards toward the ewe’s hind shanks and the lamb tumbles out onto the gray dust surrounding the trough followed by a gush of after birth. I prop up the exhausted mother in a more comfortable position, pick up the lamb and place it next to her head. She immediately starts licking away the placental sack and I’m relieved she’s taken to him.
I’m reluctant to wash my hands again in that freezing trough so I just wipe them on my jeans, which is useless because they’re already covered in muck. Now I sit on the rim of the trough and watch the mother clean the lamb. He tries on his first bleats, unsurely finds his feet and wags his tail ever so confidently. He’s got it made. I pick him up and place him on his mother’s teat. He gives the udder a couple of nudges with his head to get the juices flowing and his tail starts dancing wildly to the sucking sounds emanating from his mouth.
I don’t hang around. I scan the paddock for anymore unfortunates and then start heading home to clean up. I follow the sheep track back toward the gravel path that leads past the shed. My mind is else where. It’s running the TV news footage of my delivery as I retell the tale of my heroics. “…and that about rounds it up. A good news story if ever there were one. This is Paul Makin in Merino for 7 National NEWS.”
I hear it momentarily before I realize what’s upon me; an almost subsonic beating of the air then talons ripping at my windcheater collar and neck, a flurry of wings and squawking around my ears. “Jesus! I’m under attack.” I almost shit myself. I roll to the ground covering my head with my arms. I’m wet now from the frost, covered in muck from the lambing, and lying prone with my arms and hands covering my head. I chance a look to see where he’s gone and see him rounding about 50 yards off for another attack. I pounce catlike to my feet and scramble toward the shelter of the pines. It’s a mistake. Out to my left coming in long and low, just 18 inches above the ground, is his mate. I’ve fallen for the old one-two.
Foolishly, I stop. There isn’t even enough time to hit the turf and I take all she has to offer. Talons tear at my ears as she gets a perfect grip on my head. I wrap my hands around her and she pecks wildly at my knuckles before bird and boy stumble backwards and I trip and land squarely on my arse with this maniacal mini dinosaur brutally pecking my brains out through my cranium. I scream and flay my arms about thumping the bird with my forearms and fists. She’s gone. I get to my feet and run again toward the trees, but it’s over. I fight back the tears of humiliation. What a loser!
Before long under the protection of the pines, I look back and see the ewe on her feet by the trough nuzzling the lamb toward her udder. I feel blood trickle down the side of my cheek and taste it curiously at the corner of my mouth. “Stop the bloody cameras!”
I smile goofily to myself then run off home to mum.