1 a.m - my feet hit the floor with the first notes of the alarm. Ever since she refused her supper tonight my favourite old lady has been on my mind, but I've waited a decent interval before going back to check on her. Warm clothes over pyjamas, battered old jacket, pockets checked for wind-up torch, phone and rescue remedy, and out into the frozen night.
At the gate I stop to listen … only the nearby stream and a distant Tawny Owl. Clamber over to avoid disturbing the residents. No moon, but starlight reveals the group of pale, prone forms. Circling them, I crunch over the crisp grass towards the far corner where I penned her earlier, next to an old pony trailer left open for her to use. Pausing again to listen, this time I catch something between a cat's purr, a horse's whicker and a human murmur - the unmistakable sound of a mother greeting her offspring.
A couple of turns on the torch illuminate a timeless nativity under the low arched roof: the shepherd's best hope, a ewe with lusty new twins. She lifts her head, favouring me with a brief iconic stare. One of the lambs tries out a bleat.
from the floppy head
this first thin cry
The earliest-born stands looking dry and filled out, evidently already suckled. The wet and bloodstained newcomer is still being licked clean, but when presently it totters to its feet I see that, like the other, it is female and a good size - "a fine little pair of croopy-downs" I can hear my neighbour say. This means I shall be able to keep both of them to replace their mother, whom I dare not breed from again. Having reluctantly marked her for culling last autumn on account of age, she turned out to be - quite mysteriously - pregnant, and so was reprieved. But later this year we'll make the dawn journey together, and I'll return alone.
from the abattoir
Now I kneel beside her in the straw. One teat feels soft and damp; from the other I squeeze out the waxy plug, smear some of the thick gold colostrum onto my fingers, and, bringing the second lamb to the udder, let her taste. Ambrosia! In a few minutes she's sucking strongly; the ewe nuzzles her rump by way of encouragement, and with each rich spurt that reaches the belly the wobbly limbs grow firmer.
the old and the young
nose to tail
After a while I fetch fresh hay and water, sling the afterbirth away for the fox to find, shut up the trailer, and have a look around the rest of the flock. The euphoria is passing, my bones ache with tiredness and cold, and I long for a hot drink and my electric blanket. But at the gate I look up - and the splendour of the night sky roots me to the spot.
Beautiful Cassiopaea reclines against the Milky Way, the hot blue Pleiades glitter "like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid", and Orion the mighty hunter bestrides the Southern sky. Outshining them all blazes white magnificent Sirius - a binary star, whose light emanates from two great distant suns.
The next day I oversleep, and by the time I reach the field the frost is beginning to melt. I open up the trailer and step back. Four little bright eyes look out at their new world and eight small black hooves come pattering down the ramp. The ewe levers herself to her feet, stiffly shakes the straw from her fleece, and follows more cautiously.
daubed on her skinny flank
croopy down: Somerset dialect meaning to crouch or squat. Hence as some female animals crouch to urinate, 'a croopy-down' is a female. The description of the Pleiades is from Tennyson's 'Locksley Hall'.