Bonding between a ewe and her lamb(s) takes only a few minutes. After this, she will not take a lamb that smells differently. In general, sight and sound become important in recognition a few hours later but ewes can vary in their mothering ability which has also been shown to be strongly genetic.

In research done on Lands & Survey blocks near Taupo and in Australia, selecting ewes that reared all their multiple lambs to weaning, clearly improved mothering instincts and from studying their maternal behaviour we used to reckon that these ewes could count, as they would never leave a lamb behind or let it stray.

With the high value of lambs this coming season, it's going to be very worthwhile fostering lambs on to other ewes, provided it can be done quickly and successfully.  It's certainly a lot cheaper than artificially rearing lambs on milk powder.

Here are a few tricks to try:

  • Cover the lamb to be fostered in the ewe's birth fluids, so all her lambs smell the same.
  • Skin the dead lamb and make the skin into a coat, with holes for the fostered lambs' legs to fit through.  This can be a messy business but works well.  Hopefully, you can get rid of the skin in bits, or totally after a few days.
  • Use strong-smelling oil, or commercial products to put on the lamb and up the ewe's nostrils.  Women's perfume and whiskey have even been used, but not with great success!
  • Put the ewe in a headbail in a confined space (with food and water) leaving the lamb with her till she accepts it.  This may take a few days and may not work. It works well if the fostered lamb is big, strong, and hungry, as the ewe soon gives up the struggle.   But some ewes never give up and fostering should be abandoned.
  • It's no good tying a ewe up outside and expecting her to take a fostered lamb. She'll fight off the lamb, which will wander away, get lost, and starve.
  • Some cunning lambs can foster themselves by sneaking up behind the ewe when she's standing suckling her twins or triplets.  You can tell these lambs as their heads are always caked with dung and earn themselves an obvious nickname.

Dr Clive Dalton is a former agricultural scientist and Polytech farming tutor. He is an agricultural journalist and Technical editor of He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.