Lambing time is always the most exciting time on the Farm and can also be the most nerve wracking. You have done all you can.....you have worked out the breeding, you have made sure the ram and ewe nutrition is good, the ewes are shorn or crutched, vaccinations are up to date and the Lambing Kit is ready to go. You hope for easy births, no foxes, births during the day and no dystocias. Sometimes it all goes to plan, sometimes it doesn't. My best tip pre-lambing is READ EVERYTHING YOU CAN and be prepared.
We have bred llamas for many years and I was used to those. They are very kind as they give birth during the day, they generally give birth standing, the signs are very obvious and twins are rare. Sheep, on the other hand lamb anytime, are less obvious in their pre lambing behaviour, twins are common and if you need to assist, you are down on the ground, where gravity does not help with pulling!! This was going to be quite a learning curve! Our first lambing season went well. No assistance needed and we only lost one to foxes. Our second, all went well with no losses. The following year we had to assist two ewes and we lost one twin to a ewe who didn't bond with her babies. Subsequent years have been pretty good, although there is always the Curve Ball! This year is yet to be decided! I will let you know!
The Lambing Process
The lambing process is controlled by a complex series of hormonal changes and the birthing time is decided by the lamb. The gestation time is 142-152 days with the average being 147 days. We usually start watching around 140 days and we have only had a couple of real premmies yet. The ewe generally "bags up", as in her udder starts to fill a week to a few days before lambing although maidens may not be so obvious. Closer to the time of birth, she will appear hollow in front of her hips, she will not look as full over the hips as her muscles begin to relax, and her vulva will dilate. Now you really know it's beginning, although dilation can be up to 24 hours before the birth. She will generally stop eating (although we have found a couple did this JUST before they lambed) and most breeds will move away from the flock.
Once the cervix has dilated, a clear-whitish discharge will appear and lambing has begun in earnest. The ewe will generally lay down on her side with her head turned in the air. Contractions will continue until a large bubble or water bag appears, breaks and expels the water. Now two feet and a nose should be visible. As the ewe continues to contract, the lamb is expelled and we can breathe a sigh of relief. If there are twins or more the whole process will be repeated for the second and subsequent births. The ewe should now start cleaning her lamb as she waits for the final stage of the lambing process to happen, the expulsion of the placenta. This is usually between 30 and 60 minutes after the birth but can take longer. If it hasn't occurred within twelve hours I would be ringing the Vet as she may need an injection. A retained placenta is life threatening. The ewe may eat the placenta as instinct tells her to remove all traces of her baby in case of predators. We usually get in first and bury the placenta. She has enough to do cleaning and bonding with her lamb.
This, of course, is the perfect scenario and we hope they are all this easy, but sometimes they are not and these are the ones for which we need to be prepared.
Dystocias (Difficult Births)
One of the hardest parts of animal husbandry is knowing when to assist during birthing. It's a really hard call when you are standing by watching, waiting and wondering. USE YOUR GUT INSTINCT. I find it works for me. Plus we have a great Vet who will help me over the phone! Yayyy!!
Dystocias can be caused by several problems. I will not go into them all as there is an excellent article online here:
If a birthing problem is going to occur we have found it happens after the dilation of the cervix. The ewe lays on her side, starts to push and nothing happens. She becomes agitated and will get up and move to another place and try again. Our Vet says if they get up and move around it is time to assist as things are not going as they should and she is obviously uncomfortable. The books say if a ewe has been straining for an hour, it is time to take a look. Personally I would not be waiting that long, as we have found that normal births happen pretty quickly once the ewe lays down and starts contracting. Do make sure if you need to assist, do use gloves and remove all of your hand jewellery and make sure you have KY gel in your Lambing Kit. Another tip from our Vet, if you don't have lubricant, dishwashing liquid will do the job and it cleans your hands (gloves) and arms at the same time! Don't be too nervous about putting your hands in.....there is more room in there than you expect and there is a little life needing your help.
If you need to help with a birth, the ewe and lamb may need a little more help bonding than with an all natural birth, so be aware of that. If the ewes and lambs needed extra encouragement to bond, we just put them in a small pen in our yard with some feed. The other ewes are close by but cannot interfere. If we have to help internally, we follow the Vet's advice and administer a Penicillin shot, just in case of infection.
Once the lamb has been born, we dip the umbilical cord in a Betadine solution to stop infection from passing from the cord into the lamb. An old film canister is perfect for this job. You can use spray if you prefer, but make sure you soak the whole cord. We then watch from a distance to ensure everything is progressing normally and the lamb is active and drinking. At first they drink little and often and it is surprising how quickly they are up nursing. If you have woolly sheep it is also a good idea to have your shearer crutch around the teats as well, making it easier for the lamb to find them. We keep a close eye on the ewe and lamb for at least the first two weeks, to make sure the ewe has had no complications from the birth and the lamb is active and gaining weight.
If we have to supplement feeding or take over feeding, if for some reason, Mum does not have enough milk, we prefer to leave the lamb with Mum, where possible and bottle feed with Mum present. Sometimes this is not possible and lambs need to be reared in the house.