For the new shepherd, lambing season can be full of surprises. Waiting and watching for those first few babies can be nerve-racking, but rest assured, nine times out of 10, the birthing process will proceed normally, and you’ll soon be watching newborns frolicking in the pasture.
During the last six weeks of gestation, it’s important that your ewes get good nutrition, plenty of protein and calories, and adequate exercise to prevent pregnancy toxemia, a highly fatal condition that can occur in the last week or so of pregnancy.
This level of nutrition can be achieved, based on your management strategy, with hay, grain, protein supplements — or blocks — and access to pasture. Spreading hay out in a paddock or corral will provide a modicum of exercise for confined ewes.
During this time, plan ahead for adequate shelter for ewes and lambs, particularly if lambing will occur in spring when weather is highly unpredictable. Stick close to home when lambing is imminent, around five months, and stick close to the barnyard when lambing has begun; however, it’s generally best to stand back, out of sight if possible, than to get the ewes stirred up by hanging too close.
When it’s time, the ewe will appear swaybacked, as the lamb(s) has dropped. She will be restless and have a sunken appearance in front of the hip bones. She’ll separate herself from the rest of the flock, sometimes very subtly, and secure a spot to lamb, fussing and scratching the ground as she goes down.
Her vulva will relax and appear quite pink; it should not be red or protruding, which is an early sign of prolapse. A mucus discharge — clear or slightly bloody — will be apparent, sometimes up to two days before lambing, and up to a week after giving birth.
The ewe will lie down, sometimes “sit” down with only her back end down, and her nose pointed up. She’ll grunt and strain, and the water bag will appear. You’ll see the front feet and nose coming out. The ewe will almost always deliver the lamb(s) without any kind of assistance.
Among shepherds, it’s agonizing trying to decide whether or not to “meddle” if there seems to be a problem.
According to Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep: “A good rule of thumb is to allow half an hour to an hour after the water bag breaks, or up to two hours of labor, before you jump in. Wait a little longer for first-time ewes: say, up to three hours.” (The scope of this article doesn’t allow us to give instructions on every possible lambing problem and solution. Please consult a good sheep-raising book for all the specifics of assisting with birth and when to call a veterinarian.)
If everything’s proceeding normally — and in a healthy flock, 95 percent of births proceed this way — the lamb will plop out and squirm around on the ground, and the ewe will immediately begin to lick it clean. If it’s healthy and vigorous, it may try to stand right away. In my experience, it can take up to 30 minutes or so for a lamb to stand and start attempting to nurse. A “normal” mom will still be licking the lamb, tending to it incessantly, all the while still trying to birth any remaining lambs.
Watch how the lamb and mom are interacting. First-time moms can sometimes be confused about nursing. They twirl around, refusing to stand still and let their lamb nurse, while the lamb is going round and round trying to get purchase on the nipple. If you feel the ewe is adamantly refusing to let her lamb(s) nurse after giving her sufficient time to lamb out, you may have to confine them together in a small space and force her to stand still until she gets used to the feeling of being suckled. After all, it’s imperative that the lamb(s) ingests colostrum in its first few hours of life.
If a ewe has multiple lambs, such as twins or triplets, watch carefully. Any of the lambs could be born stuck in the placental sac, and, once out of the ewe, will be unable to breathe unless freed from it. If the ewe is ignoring a newborn “stuck” lamb on the ground in lieu of caring for another, you might have to step in and free the lamb from the sac. Just tear the sac with your hands and wipe the mucus off its nose. Then step back and give the mother the opportunity to lick it and care for it. You don’t want her to reject her lamb because of your meddling.
If the lamb still appears to have difficulty breathing, it may have excess mucus in its throat and lungs. Grab it by its hind legs and swing it in an arc a few times — the centrifugal force will force out the mucus. Just make sure to grasp it firmly to avoid throwing it, and be certain that you swing it with enough clearance of the ground and other obstacles.
If your ewes are lambing in extremely cold weather, have towels, blankets or a heating lamp ready to provide additional warmth. Keep in mind, though, that relying on a heat lamp for too long will predispose the lamb to a chill after it’s removed, and subsequent pneumonia. Most moms will provide enough warmth for their babies when given the chance — save that arctic blast that just came down from the north.
Any ewe that has triplets must be monitored, along with the lambs, to make sure each is receiving enough milk. If one lamb is smaller and weaker, and that’s usually the case, you may need to turn it into a bottle lamb, feeding it several times a day. If the small one is getting some milk, but not as much as the other two stronger lambs, you may just need to supplement it daily with a bottle or two.
There are many different levels of husbandry when it comes to raising sheep and lambing. Some shepherds prefer a hands-off approach and never assist, dip umbilical cords, etc., favoring a “survival of the fittest” strategy; others take an active role in the lives of their sheep and the lambing process; and yet others are somewhere in between. Decide what your approach will be after consulting various sources of literature and folks with experience, and plan accordingly.