Ewe nuzzling lamb. Photos by Sheryl Campbell
Spring is my favorite time of year. It’s when our lambs are born. We originally starting raising Katahdin hair sheep as a more entertaining way of keeping our pasture areas mowed. We also chose this breed because they lamb easily and are good mothers. Being newly-minted shepherds we figured we should have sheep that knew what they were doing since we didn’t have a clue.
Our sheep typically lamb in the early morning hours and we find them nursing happily when we get out to the barn in the morning. That’s how most of our lambs are born. Quickly, no fuss, and without human interference.
Lambing can be a scary time though if you’re not experienced. Lots of stories circulate of having to stay up all night in the barn with the sheep throughout the birthing season. True if you buy more difficult breeds than we did, but not so with Katahdins. Fears about still born lambs, breach births, and skittish ewes can make people shy away from raising their own sheep. But buy a hardy, self-sufficient breed, and prepare ahead for unlikely emergencies to be ready to handle anything gracefully.
Important Lambing Supplies
Lambing Kit for all Births
- Old towels
- Small cup (like a Dixie cup)
Additional Emergency Supplies
- Long latex gloves
- Lambing rope
- A halter
- Vanilla extract (you’ll see why)
Emergency Nursing Supplies
- Powdered lamb formula
- Powdered colostrum substitute – or frozen colostrum from a prior birth
- A lamb bottle and nipple
We keep all of the items from the first two lists in a handy tub to carry out to the lambing shelter with us. We keep our ewes in a permanently fenced winter pasture that includes a 3-sided shelter large enough to divide into large birthing pens when we think they are within a day of giving birth. Emergency nursing supplies are rarely needed so we keep them stored in the house. If you have to use them, follow the instructions on the containers.
What Happens on Lambing Day?
In a typical birth, the ewe’s water will break, she’ll go through a period of labor, and she’ll give birth. On our farm this typically happens in the dark morning hours in early to mid-March. By the time we arrive on the scene, the ewe is generally finished licking her baby clean. Lambs take 30-60 minutes to get fully on their feet and figure out the mechanics of nursing.
New lambs with mama
At that point we simply dry the lamb a little more with the towels, give it an oral squirt of Nutri-drench for extra energy, and dip the remaining piece of the umbilical cord. To do this put a little Betadine in the cup, hold the cup firmly against the lamb’s stomach (with the cord inside the cup), then quickly flip the lamb and cup upside down and back upright. This disinfects the stub to keep out infection without making a lot of mess.
When Things Go Wonky
The gloves and Vaseline are for when you need to “go in” and straighten out a lamb in the birth canal. They, and a clean towel, are also for when you need to help pull a lamb out that is only partially birthed. The lambing rope is for serious situations when you need to fully help the lamb out of the birthing canal. We’ve not had to use one in the decade we’ve been raising sheep. The halter and vanilla are for those times that the ewe rejects a lamb, or just can’t figure out how to nurse. By restraining the ewe with the halter you can help a lamb to latch on and nurse even if the ewe is not cooperative.
Every now and then, a ewe rejects a lamb, refusing to nurse it and kicking it away. For the full time shepherd with a large flock there are a number of things that can be tried. For small operators like us, we’ve discovered a handy and quick solution. We found a new use for vanilla when one of our ewes rejected her smallest triplet. Nothing in the sheep books seemed to work. Since sheep can tell their lambs by smell, we decided to work by scent. Rubbing vanilla on the ewe’s nose and on the lamb’s bottom convinced the mama that this was indeed her baby – he smelled just like her! Our vet denies that this can work, but we’re leaving the vanilla in our birthing kit as it’s worked every time we’ve used it over the years.
Lambing season is our favorite time of year! It is such a joy to see how God designed the ewes to give birth and care for their little ones right from the start. It is humbling and awe inspiring when we are privileged to help out. It is relieving when we don’t have to. Watching lambs gambol across the meadow to explore their new environment makes any work we have to do well worth the effort.
Sheryl Campbell is an heirloom gardener, shepherd, and edible flower educator who owns Bouquet Banquet in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Read Sheryl’s previous blogging with Mother Earth Gardener and Grit and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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