Lambing Time (Chris Lewis)

Chris Lewis, MRVCS

Lambing time should be a busy yet fulfilling experience. All the effort over the last 6 months or so is reflected in a successful lambing. I have a view that if I don't actually enjoy lambing then it is time to disperse the flock!


Be prepared is the watchword. At least a week before the first lamb is expected everything should be in place. All equipment required should be checked or acquired, in particular the following items:

10% strong iodine to dress navels
Colostrum and tubes and syringes
A method of warming lambs (usually heat lamps), and of course this requires a thermometer, the digital kind being easier to read and less likely to be broken

Other vital lambing gear will include plenty of lubricant for manual lambing and polythene bags in which to collect foetal membranes (cleansings). In addition, ask your vet for a supply of injectable antibiotic, to be used in cases of assisted births. You'll also need adequate lime (builder's lime is the cheapest) to dress out individual lambing pens and to spread around drinkers and muddy gateways.

Showing waterEveryone has their own routine, which will vary hugely between housed and outdoor lambing flocks. Outside lambing flocks can be more difficult but if you plan a night patrol start at least five days before the first ewe is due. This covers the eventuality of an early lamber being spotted and also gets the flock used to someone walking round with a torch. Probably the best routine is 10pm, 2am and 6am. Nothing too desperate can happen in 4 hours. Inside the same timing can be used, but make sure the ewes are used to either 24 hour light or the sudden lighting during the night. Try to recognise the first stage of labour: a ewe will usually draw away from the remainder of the flock, or seek out a quiet corner in the housed situation. Watch for the water bag, and do not rush at this stage. Even with a mal-presentation give the ewe 4 hours before attempting to lamb her. This is important to allow complete relaxation. The only exception is if just a head is suddenly presented, at which stage quick intervention is required, or if the ewe is in obvious difficulties getting up and down between periods of severe pressing.

Checking position of lamb Generally, if the ewe needs to be assisted, follow my old professor's advice and line up the lamb so you can draw it out like a cork from a champagne bottle. If you are unhappy at lambing a ewe, take her to your local veterinary practice having phoned ahead to warn of your imminent arrival. If you lamb a ewe yourself, having delivered the lamb always re-examine the ewe for another lamb. If one is present, I like to leave the ewe to marry onto the first arrival for about 1/2 an hour, then go back to assist with the next. Frequently the ewe herself will have lambed the second in your absence – however, go back and feel for a possible third (unless you've had the flock scanned, which takes some of the guesswork out of lambing).

All navels should be dressed within 1 to 2 hours of birth. The lamb should have stood and sucked within 2 hours of birth. If it has not, tube feed with colostrum and check its temperature. Suitable colostrums include that obtained from other ewes (one that may have lost its lambs), or cow's colostrums – but in this case mix colostrums from 2 different unrelated cows to prevent anaemia developing, or use a commercial artificial colostrum. In the case of lambs refusing to suck repeat using colostrums every 2 to 4 hours; otherwise leave the ewe to bond with as little interference as possible.

And remember, ewes still require a high level of nutrition to feed for milk production; the number of lambs to be reared is the deciding factor.

Adam with three lambs In the case of triplets several theories abound. Some say remove the weakest, others the strongest to rear artificially. Some breeds will rear triplets themselves provided they are well fed and the lambs allowed access to creep feed.

Protection against clostridial diseases is provided by the pre-lambing booster dose given 6-4 weeks pre-lambing. Single bearing ewes require no worming at lambing if well fed on a 18% protein diet, whilst those with multiple lambs require worming around lambing when convenient. This is far easier in housed flocks when the usual routine is to worm as they leave the house. Do not use a long-acting product year-on-year as this is a sure way to build up resistance; ask your vet for guidance on this complicated aspect.

Should you be unfortunate in having ewes abort, a diagnosis is vital not only to reduce losses short term, but also to be able to prevent a re-occurrence next year by means of a suitable vaccination programme. Collect both the dead lamb (foetus) and the foetal membranes in double layer polythene bags and submit on your vet's advice to the nearest VLA laboratory (see details below) or to the practice itself. Identify the ewe(s) that have aborted and isolate until the cause is known. (If you're unable to have the dead lamb examined, arrange for your vet to blood test the ewes in order to pinpoint the cause).

In Programme 3 of the 'Sheep on Your Smallholding' series, Adam lambs a young ewe that presents just a lamb's head, and demonstrates how to use lambing ropes to assist the birth.

 The VLA (Veterinary Laboratories Agency) has 16 laboratories covering England, Scotland and Wales. They have a set scale of charges for carrying out diagnostic testing on livestock samples, currently, this is £43.85 (ex. VAT) for testing an aborted lamb + placenta from a single ewe –


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dvd-setFor further breeding information, see 'The Breeding Flock', programme 3 in the DVD series 'Sheep on Your Smallholding'.