Let sleeping vets lie, p.2
Let Sleeping Vets Lie, p.2James Herriot
scurry as we went in but he caught expertly at the fleece of a darting
ewe. "This is the first one. You can see we haven't a deal o" time."
I lifted the woolly tail and gasped. The lamb's head was protruding from
the vagina, the lips of the vulva clamped tightly behind the ears, and
it had swollen enormously to more than twice its size. The eyes were
mere puffed slits in the great oedematous ball and the tongue, blue and
engorged, lolled from the mouth.
"Well I've seen a few big heads, Rob, but I think this takes the prize."
"Aye, the little beggar came with his legs back. Just beat me to it. Ah
was only away for an hour but he was up like a football. By hell it
doesn't take long. I know he wants his legs bringin" round but what can
I do with bloody great mitts like mine." He held out his huge hands,
rough and swollen with the years of work.
While he spoke I was stripping off my jacket and as I rolled my shirt
sleeves high the wind struck like a knife at my shrinking flesh. I
soaped my fingers quickly and began to feel for a space round the lamb's
neck. For a moment the little eyes opened and regarded me
"He's alive, anyway," I said. "But he must feel terrible and he can't do
a thing about it."
Easing my way round, I found a space down by the throat where I thought
I might get through. This was where my 'lady's hand" came in useful and
I blessed it every spring; I could work inside the ewes with the minimum
of discomfort to them and this was all-important because sheep, despite
their outdoor hardiness, just won't stand rough treatment.
With the utmost care I inched my way along the curly wool of the neck to
~L the shoulder. Another push forward and I was able to hook a finger
round the leg and draw it forward until I could feel the flexure of the
knee; a little more twiddling and I had hold of the tiny cloven foot and
drew it gently out into the light of day.
Well that was half the job done. I got up from the sack where I was
kneeling and went over to the bucket of warm water; I'd use my left hand
for the other leg and began to soap it thoroughly while one of the ewes,
marshalling her lambs around her, glared at me indignantly and gave a
warning stamp of her foot.
Turning, I kneeled again and began the same procedure and as I once more
groped forward a tiny lamb dodged under my arm and began to suck at my
patient's udder. He was clearly enjoying it, too, if the little tail,
twirling inches from my face, meant anything.
"Where did this bloke come from?" I asked, still feeling round.
The farmer smiled. "Oh that's Herbert. Poor little youth's mother won't
have 'im at any price. Took a spite at him at birth though she thinks
world of her other lamb."
"Do you feed him, then?"
"Nay, I was going to put him himself. He pops from one ewe to ttother
and gets chance. I've never seen owl like it." with the pet lambs but I
saw he was fendin" for gets a quick drink whenever he "Only a week old
and an independent spirit, eh?"
"That's about the size of it, Jim. I notice 'is belly's full every
mornin" so I reckon his ma must let him have a do during the night. She
can't see him in the dark - it must be the look of him she can't stand."
I watched the little creature for a moment. To me he seemed as full of
knock-kneed charm as any of the others. Sheep were funny things.
I soon had the other leg out and once that obstruction was removed the
lamb followed easily. He was a grotesque sight Lying on the strewed
grass, his enormous head dwarfing his body, but his ribs were heaving
reassuringly and I knew the head would shrink back to normal as quickly
as it had expanded. I had another search round inside the ewe but the
uterus was empty.
"There's no more, Rob," I said.
The farmer grunted. "Aye, I thowt so, just a big single 'un. They're the
ones that cause the trouble."
Drying my arms, I watched Herbert He had left my patient when she moved
round to lick her lamb and he was moving speculatively among the other
ewes. Some of them warned him off with a shake of the head but
eventually he managed to sneak up on a big, wide-bodied sheep and pushed
his head underneath her. Immediately she swung round and with a fierce
upward butt of her hard skull she sent the little animal flying high in
the air in a whirl of flailing legs. He landed with a thud on his back
and as I hurried towards him he leaped to his feet and trotted away.
"Awd bitch!" shouted the farmer and as I turned to him in some concern
he shrugged. "I know, poor little sod, it's rough, but I've got a
feelin" he wants it this way rather than being in the pen with the pet
lambs. Look at 'im now."
Herbert, quite unabashed, was approaching another ewe and as she bent
over her feeding trough he nipped underneath her and his tail went into
action again. There was no doubt about it - that lamb had guts.
"Rob," I said as he caught my second patient,"why do you call him
"Well that's my younger lad's name and that lamb's just like 'im the way
he puts his head down and gets stuck in, fearless like."
I put my hand into the second ewe. Here was a glorious mix up of three
lambs; little heads, legs, a tail, all fighting their way towards the
outside world and effectively stopping each other from moving an inch.
"She's been hanging about all morning and painin"," Rob said. "I knew
summat was wrong."
Moving a hand carefully around the uterus I began the fascinating
business of sorting out the tangle which is just about my favourite job
in practice. I had to bring a head and two legs up together in order to
deliver a lamb; but they had to belong to the same lamb or I was in
trouble. It was a matter of tracing each leg back to see if it was hind
or fore, to find if it joined the shoulder or disappeared into the
After a few minutes I had a lamb assembled inside with his proper
appendages but as I drew the legs into view the neck telescoped and the
head slipped back; there was barely room for it to come through the
pelvic bones along with the shoulders and I had to coax it through with
a finger in the eye socket. This was groaningly painful as the bones
squeezed my hand but only for a few seconds because the ewe gave a final
strain and the little nose was visible. After that it was easy and I had
him on the grass within seconds. The little creature gave a convulsive
shake of his head and the farmer wiped him down quickly with straw
before pushing him to his mother's head.
The ewe bent over him and began to lick his face and neck with little
quick darts of her tongue; and she gave the deep chuckle of satisfaction
that you hear from a sheep only at this time. The chuckling continued as
I produced another pair of lambs from inside her, one of them hind end
first, and, towelling my arms again, I watched her nosing round her
Soon they began to ans
drew my coat thankfully over my cold-reddened arms, lamb number one
began to struggle to his knees; he couldn't quite make it to his feet
and kept toppling on to his face but he knew where he was going, all
right; he was headed for that udder with a singleness of purpose which
would soon be satisfied.
Despite the wind cutting over the straw bales into my face I found
myself grinning down at the scene; this was always the best part, the
wonder that was always fresh, the miracle you couldn't explain.
I heard from Rob Benson again a few days later. It was a Sunday
afternoon and his voice was strained, almost panic-stricken.
"Jim, I've had a dog in among me in-lamb ewes. There was some folk up
here with a car about dinner time and my neighbour said they had an
Alsatian and it was chasing the sheep all over the field. There's a hell
of a mess - I tell you I'm frightened to look."
"I'm on my way." I dropped the receiver and hurried out to the car. I
had a sinking dread of what would be waiting for me; the helpless
animals Lying with their throats torn, the terrifying lacerations of
limbs and abdomen. I had seen it all before. The ones which didn't have
to be slaughtered would need stitching and on the way I made a mental
check of the stock of suture silk in the boot.
The ewes were in a field by the roadside and my heart gave a
quick thump as I looked over the wall; arms resting on the rough loose
stones I gazed with sick dismay across the pasture. This was worse than
I had feared. The long slope of turf was dotted with prostrate sheep
there must have been about fifty of them, motionless woolly mounds
scattered at intervals on the green.
Rob was standing just inside the gate. He hardly looked at me. Just
gestured with his head.
"Tell me what you think. I daren't go in there."
I left him and began to walk among the stricken creatures, rolling them
over lifting their legs, parting the fleece of their necks to examine
them. Some were completely unconscious, others comatose, none of them
could stand up. But as I worked my way up the field I felt a growing
bewilderment. Finally I called back to the farmer.
"Rob, come over here. There's something very strange."
"Look," I said as the farmer approached hesitantly. "There's not a drop
of blood nor a wound anywhere and yet all the sheep are flat out. I
can't understand it."
Rob went over and gently raised a lolling head. "Aye, you're right. What
the hell's done it, then?"
At that moment I couldn't answer him, but a little bell was tinkling far
away in the back of my mind. There was something familiar about that ewe
the farmer had just handled. She was one of the few able to support
herself on her chest and she was Lying there, blank-eyed, oblivious of
everything; but ... that drunken nodding of the head, that watery nasal
discharge ... I had seen it before. I knelt down and as I put my face
close to hers I heard a faint bubbling - almost a rattling - in her
breathing. I knew then.
"It's calcium deficiency," I cried and began to gallop down the slope
towards the car.
Rob trotted alongside me. "But what the 'elf? They get that after
lambin", don't they?"
"Yes, usually," I puffed. "But sudden exertion and stress can bring it
"Well ah never knew that," panted Rob. "How does it happen?"
I saved my breath. I wasn't going to start an exposition on the effects
of sudden derangement of the parathyroid. I was more concerned with
wondering if I had enough calcium in the boot for fifty ewes. It was
reassuring to see the long row of round tin caps peeping from their
cardboard box; I must have filled up recently.
I injected the first ewe in the vein just to check my diagnosis calcium
works as quickly as that in sheep - and felt a quiet elation as the
unconscious animal began to blink and tremble, then tried to struggle on
to its chest.
"We'll inject the others under the skin," I said. "It'll save time."
I began to work my way up the field. Rob pulled forward the fore leg of
each sheep so that I could insert the needle under the convenient patch
of unwoolled skin just behind the elbow; and by the time I was half way
up the slope the ones at the bottom were walking about and getting their
heads into the food troughs and hay racks.
It was one of the most satisfying experiences of my working life. Not
clever, but a magical transfiguration; from despair to hope, from death
to life within minutes.
I was throwing the empty bottles into the boot when Rob spoke. He was
looking wonderingly up at the last of the ewes getting to its feet at
the far end of the field.
"Well Jim, I'll tell you. I've never seen owl like that afore. But
there's one thing bothers me." He turned to me and his weathered
features screwed up in puzzlement. "Ah can understand how gettin" chased
by a dog could affect some of them ewes, but why should the whole bloody
lot go down?"
"Rob," I said. "I don't know."
And, thirty years later, I still wonder. I still don't know why the
whole bloody lot went down.
I thought Rob had enough to worry about at the time, so I didn't point
out to him that other complications could be expected after the Alsatian
episode. I wasn't surprised when I had a call to the Benson farm within
I met him again on the hillside with the same wind whipping over the
straw bale pens. The lambs had been arriving in a torrent and the noise
was louder than ever. He led me to my patient.
"There's one with a bellyful of dead lambs, I reckon," he said, pointing
to a ewe with her head drooping, ribs heaving. She stood quite
motionless and made no attempt to move away when I went up to her; this
one was really sick and as the stink of decomposition came up to me I
knew the farmer's diagnosis was right.
"Well I suppose it had to happen to one at least after that chasing
round," I said. "Let's see what we can do, anyway."
This kind of lambing is without charm but it has to be done to save the
ewe. The lambs were putrid and distended with gas and I used a sharp
scalpel to skin the legs to the shoulders so that I could remove them
and deliver the little bodies with the least discomfort to the mother.
When I had finished, the ewe's head was almost touching the ground, she
was panting rapidly and grating her teeth. I had nothing to offer her no
wriggling new creature for her to lick and revive her interest in life.
What she needed was an injection of penicillin, but this was 1939 and
the antibiotics were still a little way round the corner.
"Well I wouldn't give much for her," Rob grunted. "Is there owl more you
can do ?"
"Oh, I'll put some pessaries in her and give her an injection, but what
she needs most is a lamb to look after. You know as well as I do that
ewes in this condition usually give up if they've nothing to occupy
them. You haven't a spare lamb to put to her, have y
"Not right now, I haven't. And it's now she needs it. Tomorrow'll be too
Just at that moment a familiar figure wandered into view. It was
Herbert, the unwanted lamb, easily recognisable as he prowled from sheep
to sheep in search of nourishment.
"Hey, do you think she'd take that little chap?" I asked the farmer.
He looked doubtful. "Well I don't know - he's a bit old. Nearly a
fortnight and they like 'em newly born."
"But it's worth a try isn't it? Why not try the old trick on her?"
Rob grinned. "OK, we'll do that. There's nowt to lose. Anyway the little
youth isn't much bigger than a new-born 'un. He hasn't grown as fast as
his mates." He took out his penknife and quickly skinned one of the dead
lambs, then he tied the skin over Herbert's back and round his jutting
"Poor little bugger, there's nowt on 'im," he muttered. "If this doesn't
work he's going in with the pet lambs."
When he had finished he set Herbert on the grass and the lamb, resolute
little character that he was, bored straight in under the sick ewe and
began to suck. It seemed he wasn't having much success because he gave
the udder a few peremptory thumps with his hard little head; then his
tail began to wiggle.
"She's lettin" him have a drop, any road," Rob laughed.
Herbert was a type you couldn't ignore and the big sheep, sick as she
was, just had to turn her head for a look at him. She sniffed along the
Let Sleeping Vets Lie by James Herriot / Humor / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes