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  • A few hours before lambing, a ewe will move away from the main flock to find a quiet birth site.
  • Particular areas of lambing paddocks such as hollows or hill tops can be very popular spots and many lamb mix-ups and mis-mothering can happen here.
  • It may be necessary to fence them off after a while when they get muddy. This will avoid a great deal of extra work and frustration for the shepherd.
  • Ewes heavy in lamb become very quiet, and near lambing are more vigilant and graze less. This restlessness lasts until she finally selects a birth site
  • On the birth site:
    • The ewe paws the ground
    • She keeps turning round and round
    • She lies down and gets up a lot
    • Her waters burst and she gets up to smell the ground where it fell
    • Then after labour contractions the lambs will be born
    • The ewe then gets up and licks the lambs
    • The lamb may be finally delivered with the ewe standing
    • The ewe produces the afterbirth
    • She will remain on the site till the lambs have suckled
  • Ewes vary in the time they spend on the birth site.
  • Old experienced ewes will move off as soon as the lambs have suckled and can move with her.
  • These ewes with good maternal instincts and experience seem to be able to count and will not leave their lambs behind – going back to gather up stray twins or triplets. They stand with head down giving a low bleat and constantly nuzzling the lambs.
  • Younger ewes with no previous experience will stay longer on the birth site, as they have the novelty of a lamb to deal with. If disturbed then these sheep panic more easily – leading to lamb neglect.
  • It’s good practice to leave newly lambed ewes alone on their birth site, and only move them after a couple of days when they have clearly bonded and moved off to another area of the paddock.
  • Shifting ewes or lambs in the middle of the birth process is a disaster and will lead to mis-mothering of lambs.
  • It’s a good idea to spot mark multiples at birth and then leave them alone. This helps ensure correct mothering later.
Burglar ewes
  • Often a ewe that has not lambed will steal a lamb from a newly lambed ewe.
  • Her maternal instincts have got out of phase.
  • She can cause enormous disruption and you often don’t know that she hasn’t lambed until the day you find her with a lamb a few days old, and then a new one!
  • The only cure is to move her out of the lambing paddock when found.
  • Often you are tempted to put her in the killer’s paddock when you discover what she’s been up to!
Mothering and lamb survival
  • Sheep are classical "follower species" where the lamb follows the ewe most of the daylight hours.
  • The lamb starts this by following movement immediately it can walk. So you will see a very young lamb follow the shepherd, the dog or the bike, and this can lead to mis-mothering.
  • Multiple births are common in sheep. Finnish Landrace sheep can even have litters up to 7-8. As the ewe has two teats, there is high mortality in these highly fertile breeds unless the lambs are artificially reared.
  • Breeders started to select sheep with four functional teats but this has not got very far.
  • Good lamb survival depends on the ewe licking the lamb and the lamb finding the teat.
  • Teat seeking behaviour is important. The lamb has got to be determined to get on its feet, start nosing the ewe to find an area of bare skin and find a teat to suck on.
  • Some lambs find the skin under the front legs and waste time before moving to the rear end of the ewe.
  • A good ewe will encourage the lamb to move to the rear by standing still and nuzzling its rump and anal area.
  • Inexperienced young ewes will not stand still and turn round to lick the lamb all the time. Lamb dies of starvation often through this overzealous mothering.
  • Once the lamb has found the teat it will stand with head down reaching below the ewe, pushing upwards and once on the teat, wagging its tail while suckling.
  • Lambs die in the first 3 days for a number of reasons:
    • Dystocia of single lambs that get too big and stick in the birth canal.
    • Death of small multiple lambs that have not sucked.
    • Lambs that die from wet and cold – hypothermia
    • Multiples left behind to starve when ewe takes off with one lamb
    • Lambs that suffocate as membranes around lamb have not broken at birth.
    • Lambs that follow other ewes and are rejected. Not found again by own dam.
    • Lambs that have slipped down steep hillsides away from their birth site.
    • Lambs that die from haemorrhage as ewe has chewed the navel or tail
  • Sound then sight soon reinforce the ewe/lamb bond that was built initially on smell. The ewe recognises the lamb’s bleat, and the lamb learns the ewe’s call. This is important as lambs get older and spend time away from the ewe, e.g. with other lambs.
  • Lambs show great play behaviour, especially approaching dusk when they race along fences and play "king of the castle". They can often fall down holes and drown in water troughs during this activity.
  • When danger is seen, the ewe first calls the lamb then checks its approaching identity by sight.
  • Bonding of the ewe and lamb is very rapid at birth. Once the ewe has smelled the lamb she will not take a lamb that smells differently.
  • To foster lambs on to ewes, there are a few tricks but realise that some ewes are more determined than others not to be fooled.
  • To add a lamb to a ewe that already has a single, have the lamb ready and cover it in the ewe’s birth fluids so both lambs smell the same. The fostered lamb will be more active so make sure the ewe licks her own lamb well and it gets a drink. It’s best to artificially feed it to make sure it gets enough colostrum.
  • For a ewe with a dead lamb, skin the dead lamb and make it into a suit with holes for legs to fit on the fostered lamb.
  • Use strong smelling oil or commercial product to put on lamb and up the ewe’s nostrils. This is not always effective.
  • Put the ewe in close confinement in a head bail and leave the lamb with her till she accepts it. This may take a few days and some ewes will win the battle.
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