Living Through Lambing Part II: Birthing Basics

Learn solutions to a few of the common problems of lambing season, including issues with lamb delivery, how to foster a relationship between ewe and baby and more.

| January/February 1982

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    Help you ewes have happy, healthy deliveries.
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    When a team of two people castrate ram lambs, one person holds the animal in this position while the other one wields the knife. (A shepherd working alone can tie one end of a rope just above the rear hoof, then pass it around the back and over to the other hoof.)

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In Part I of "Living Through Lambing," I discussed both the long- and short-term preparations that sheep farmers need to make before the lambing season gets underway. It's only when those all-important weeks arrive, though, that the real work of a shepherd's year starts.
As a ewe's delivery day nears, we begin to watch for the unmistakable signs that'll tell us the animal is approaching her due date. Most ewes "bag up" or "make a sac" — that is, sport enlarged udders — and will often "spring" (show a slightly swollen, pinkish vulva) several days before lambing. (A protruding, reddish genital area, however, can be a symptom of a serious problem . . . usually a prolapsed vagina.)

Since it's not always possible to predict a birth by an animal's size and shape, you'll need to look for other tell-tale signs showing that a sheep is indeed "near her time." At this point, some shepherds like to confine the ewe in a warm, dry lambing pen. Our system, however, is to make frequent lamb checks around the barn or pasture — searching for newborns with our ears as well as our eyes — because a new mother will murmur distinctive sheep-love sounds to her offspring. It's always a good idea to listen carefully before barging into a potential birthing area (especially at night, when an unexpected flashlight beam might scatter a family before you have a chance to tag the new arrivals).

Labor and Delivery of Lambs

Many novice shepherds have asked us how long a ewe will normally be actively in labor. Some experts say that delivery ought to occur within half an hour after the onset of contractions while others insist that two hours isn't excessive. Our experience runs the gamut between those extremes: We've found that the time will vary, depending upon such factors as the animal's weight and age, the size of her baby and her strength. Your best bet is to rely on firsthand observation — rather than a particular timetable — to determine whether a ewe is in trouble or just having a long, but not dangerous, labor.

A normal presentation in the birth of a lamb will begin with the appearance of the front legs, followed by the nose and then — once the shoulders pass through the birth canal — the rest of the delivery will proceed quickly and easily. Of course, lambs can emerge from their mothers' wombs in a variety of positions, many of which may require the attention of an experienced shepherd or even a veterinarian. For a handy review of abnormal births, we consult our copy of an article printed several years ago in The Shepherd magazine "Obstetrics in the Sheep Barn," which tells how to deal with 10 difficult delivery situations.

Once the fuzzy babe has arrived, a good ewe will clean the veil of mucus covering the newborn's mouth (to enable it to take its first breath) and lick it dry. However, some mothers — particularly if they're young, inexperienced or just plain exhausted — may be slow to perform those instinctive duties, so we occasionally have to lend a helping hand. If all goes well, though, we like to give the ewe and her infant an undisturbed half-hour immediately following the birth so they can get acquainted and form a family bond. After this postpartum reverie, we swing into the normal lambing routine that's really the heart of our whole system.

A Lambing Schedule

It's often difficult to remember while overwhelmed with the euphoria of the first birth of the season, how tired, irritable and slightly befuddled we'll become after a month or two of the intense activity. So we've learned that the most effective lamb- and temper-saver is a standard procedure that can be performed by rote. Such a system should be worked out well in advance, so that it can carry the burden of performance when that inevitable battle fatigue sets in on weary shepherds.

Here's the schedule we follow when handling a normal birth, beginning soon after the lamb is dropped.

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