Lambing 3 - When the Shepherd Needs to Intervene, and When to Call the Vet
Part 3 of a series of 5 articles:
Lambing can be a very rewarding experience when everything goes to plan, and more often than not this is the case. However, occasionally the ewe will need assistance; she may have difficulty giving birth to a large lamb, or one that’s not in the right position to be born, and this is when she needs your help. Inevitably, there will be times when you need to call expert veterinary help, and the greater your knowledge and experience of lambing the more quickly you will recognise a serious problem. So, before you lamb your own flock, get some practical experience: go on a training course, refer to books and DVDs, and if you know any shepherds, offer to help at lambing time.
How can I tell when the ewe is ready to lamb?
Observe the ewe flock closely during the days running up to the start of lambing. Morning and evening feeds are the best time, as you can inspect their rear-ends while they feed at the trough! A few days before she lambs, the ewe’s udder will swell as milk production starts, commonly called ‘bagging up’. At the same time, her vulva becomes pink and swells in readiness for birth. Be familiar with the stages of labour, and spend time with your ewes so you recognise subtle behavioural changes. First stage labour begins 3-6 hours before she is due to lamb; the ewe will separate herself from the flock to find a birth site, she’ll appear restless and may paw at the ground. As birth approaches, she’ll lay down on one side and start to strain. At this stage contractions come about every 15 minutes and last just a few seconds. Soon, thick mucus will be expelled from the vulva and this signals an increase in the frequency and strength of her contractions, which now come every 2-3 minutes.
What is a ‘normal’ birth?
At the end of first stage labour, the ewe’s cervix will be fully dilated and the water bag that has been cushioning the lamb will appear – often this bursts inside the ewe and you’ll only see the wetness on her hindquarters. Second stage labour follows, which can take anything from a few minutes to half an hour (a young ewe will generally take longer than an experienced ewe); you’ll notice her flanks hollow in front of the pelvis as the ewe ‘s increasingly strong straining pushes the lamb through the birth canal. Shortly afterwards, as the contractions become stronger, the lamb’s nose and front feet (soles pointing downwards) become visible, often surrounded by a transparent membrane. The ewe strains even harder, and within minutes – or up to half an hour, the lamb is born.
What do I need to do once the lamb is born?
The umbilical cord usually breaks as the lamb is born, which stimulates the lamb to take its first breath. If it’s still attached, gently draw the lamb away from the ewe and it will break naturally – never cut the cord as it may haemorrhage. It’s important to clear any membrane or mucus from the lamb’s nose and mouth or it may stop the lamb breathing. The ewe’s instinct is to turn and lick her lamb, drying it, stimulating its circulation and establishing the all-important bond between them. This also triggers hormones in the ewe that promote milk production, and stimulate the contractions for a twin, if present, and expulsion of the afterbirth. If she’s exhausted, you may need to rub the newborn lamb against her nose to encourage her. Your next job is to disinfect the lamb’s navel to prevent infection: use a small wide-mouthed jar and iodine to immerse the cord and the surrounding area. Finally, make sure the ewe successfully suckles her lamb.
If the ewe is having twins, how long between lambs?
A second lamb may arrive quickly, or there may be a further half hour between lambs.
How long should I leave the ewe before helping?
There are no hard and fast rules, but there are some sensible guidelines. Unless she’s in obvious distress – continuously getting up and laying down, allow her time to lamb by herself. Check how she’s getting on after 15-20 minutes. If you can see both forefeet and a muzzle – the normal birth presentation, the lamb should be born after 5-10 minutes of further straining. If there is no sign of a lamb, gently examine her, observing the precautions described below, and if just a head, or tail, or single leg is presented, you will need to correct the position of the lamb to enable it to be born.
What precautions do I need to take before helping lamb a ewe?
Hygiene is vital to protect the ewe, her lamb and the shepherd from infectious disease. Remove all jewellery, and ideally use arm-length disposable gloves. If you really can’t manage with these, it’s essential to thoroughly scrub (short!) fingernails, hands and arms with surgical hand wash, and then apply copious amounts of obstetric lubricant. Always be gentle when examining a ewe, rough or unskilled shepherding can damage the ewe and her lamb.
The lamb seems to be ‘stuck’
If you can see both forefeet, but you only see the muzzle and tongue when the ewe strains, it may be a large lamb and the ewe may need assistance. With thumb and forefinger gently pull one foreleg at a time, so that each elbow is straightened … this moves the lamb into the ‘diving’ position, which is the normal presentation for birth … slide your hand behind the lambs’ head and with your other hand grasp both feet, then pull slowly but firmly downwards and outwards … once past its shoulders the lamb will slide out easily.
What am I feeling for?
If part of the lamb is visible (a head, tail or single leg), in almost every case it’s best to gently push the lamb back into the uterus where you will have more room to manipulate it into a position to be born. Raising the ewe’s hindquarters gives you the advantage of gravity to do this. It often helps to close your eyes and ‘visualise’ what you can feel; a leg joint – is it a knee, or a hock? Run your fingers to the top of the legs to make sure they both belong to the same lamb. Once you have a clear picture in your mind, you can gently manoeuvre the lamb into the birthing position.
Are there any aids I can use to help lamb a ewe?
There is nothing more frustrating than lining up a lamb to be born, then the head flips back or you lose a leg! You can buy a lambing ‘snare’ that fits around the back of the head, and lambing ‘ropes’ to secure the front legs to prevent this, but make sure you practice doing this (use a toy lamb), in the dark, several times before you start lambing.
How long should I persevere?
If after 5 minutes you are uncertain of what you can feel, it’s time to call expert veterinary help. Similarly, if all you can feel is a tight ring and no lamb, this may be a condition called ‘ringwomb’ (where the cervix has not dilated) which needs urgent veterinary attention – on no account try to force an entry as you could severely damage the ewe.
Does the ewe need any medication after an assisted lambing?
If you’ve observed strict hygiene and provided as near to aseptic conditions as possible for a simple assisted lambing, then the expulsion of the placenta should cleanse the birth canal. However, in reality, it’s almost impossible to provide these conditions so it’s advisable to give the ewe a long-acting antibiotic injection (intramuscular) to ensure that she doesn’t develop Metritis, an infection of the womb that can prove fatal.
What do I do with the afterbirth?
Soon after the ewe has lambed she will pass the placenta, or afterbirth (third stage labour). Often she will eat this, but if you do find it, incinerate it, as it can be a source of infection to other sheep.
If you’re unsure about the lambing techniques described, call your vet or take the ewe to the surgery as a matter of urgency. Due to risk of infectious abortion disease, pregnant women should not come into close contact with ewes at or around lambing time.
More information on caring for your flock during the breeding season can be found on “The Breeding Flock” DVD.
Next month in 'Lambing 4':
This article first appeared in Smallholder Magazine, March 2012 - written by Carole Youngs of The Smallholder Series.