Lambing at Allen Farm

Every May on the one hundred–acre Chilmark farm, the new lambs arrive – usually without assistance, and certainly with no fanfare. Oak Bluffs photographer Alison Shaw made a series of trips to the farm last spring to capture the first days of life for these fuzzy new Islanders.

Clarissa Allen, who runs the farm with her husband, Mitchell Posin, times the liaisons between the farm’s three lucky rams and sixty ewes for early December, so the lambs will arrive in May – easier and less chilly for both farmers and sheep than the March births they used to have. The Corriedale ewes typically require no help in birthing, dropping the lambs wherever they happen to be. But occasionally problems arise, and Clarissa lends a hand.

One day last May, a ewe that had given birth earlier in the day was still in obvious discomfort, so Mitch called Clarissa home from a yoga class. With the white firstborn hovering nearby, Clarissa worked to free a black lamb from the brown ewe. The lamb emerged in distress, and Clarissa quickly handed it to Mitch, who seized the newborn by its hind legs and swung it around in circles for a few seconds to clear its lungs. Clarissa says the technique is remarkably effective for reviving lifeless-seeming lambs. Photographer Alison Shaw says, “It was one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen in my life.” Even that was not the end of the show: A third lamb, another white one, surprised everyone minutes later.

About half the ewes give birth to one lamb, and half to two, with triplets a bit of a rarity. Lambs like to stay close to their mothers in the early months, and Clarissa sometimes uses a system, marking them with green dye, to keep track of who belongs to whom. Every year, a lamb or two is rejected by its mother, and bottle-fed. It can happen to the smallest of a triplet set, or for seemingly no reason at all. “I never quite understand it,” Clarissa says.

Sheep have, in Clarissa’s words, “collective intelligence,” and as the herd moves in a line, the animals’ pointy hooves carve the paths that criss-cross the farm, testimony to their instinct not to stray. While sheep are not noted for their IQs, Clarissa maintains, “They’re not one bit stupid,” and says that humans could take a lesson from her sheep in working together.

Alison noticed that in the late afternoons, sheep would often gather around and climb hilltop rocks, each taking a turn, perhaps enjoying the view over the fields and ocean. One hopes the sheep appreciate their prime real estate, with the waves crashing in the distance and acres of rolling green, predator-free pasture.

After the lambs arrive, the sheep are shorn of their thick wool on Memorial Day. Most of the lambs are sold for meat at about nine months – processed off-Island and primarily sold to wholesalers, though the small store at the farm sells meat – with a fortunate ten or so staying on to replace older members of the herd. In the past, Clarissa has ended up with an “old herd.” She says, “I was keeping everybody I knew.” Now she seeks out lambs from good mothers, hoping that they’ve passed down their mothering characteristics; she also looks for size and a “less-flighty” temperament.

Though not generally a morning person, Alison usually went to the farm in the early hours to photograph the animals, when there would be “some moisture in the air” and the sun would be at a lower angle. Mist or dew adds texture, and midday lacks the dramatic shadows and warmth of dawn or dusk.

With the exception of the bottle-fed few who are accustomed to human contact and kept next to the shop, the sheep are generally quite skittish around people – especially those with lambs and the youngsters themselves – so Alison used a long lens for close-up shots. She often inserted herself between lamb and ewe to promote interaction, and most of the running photos were sheep fleeing from her. Alison notes that this was one of the first projects she shot entirely in digital, and only as she became convinced that digital could replicate the richness of film.

She describes the trips as “addictive,” despite the realities of a sheep farm, which required her to keep a pair of “sheep boots” in her car. Some shots required even greater sacrifice: “I was lying down in sheep poop for forty-five minutes and I didn’t care.”