Back in the autumn when the tups went in, lambing seemed a really long way away. All of a sudden, we look at the calendar and lambing is getting closer. Do you feel prepared? Whether you are a seasoned shepherd or a budding one, it’s best to make sure the lambing kit is all ready and replenished. 

Pre-lambing checks

In the lead up to lambing, monitoring the body condition score (BCS) is a very important tool for a successful lambing season. Fit ewes in BCS 2.5-3.5 are more likely to have healthy lambs, produce plenty of good colostrum and suffer less pre-lambing issues (such as twin lamb disease and prolapses). Approximately 4-6 weeks before they lamb the ewes should have received a vaccine booster against clostridial diseases. This will give their immune system enough time to prepare the precious antibodies that need to go into the colostrum and protect the lambs.

Prepare all the kit!

A couple of weeks before lambing is due to start, make sure you have clean soft ropes and/or a snare, lubricating gel, gloves, strong iodine for dipping navels and a contact list of people (including your vets) that you could call on for assistance. A few other things would be useful: a few doses of pain killer for the ewes in case of difficult lambings; ear tags and rubber rings; lamb colostrum and milk replacers. Ask your vet for the best quality colostrum replacer; nothing beats a ewe’s colostrum, but the quality of the powdered products varies significantly.

Having taken care of the pre-lambing prep, it’s finally crunch time.

How can we tell if a ewe is in labour, and how can we help her if she needs assistance? 

Here are some tips.

1) First stage labour may not be very obvious

However, usually they start trying to isolate themselves (in a corner of the field or indoor pen) and lie down. They are not actively pressing at this stage but will look uncomfortable and be restless, pawing the ground and walking. At this stage, watch every hour from a distance and wait. A first timer may take longer in this stage than an older ewe that had lambs before; 3-4 hours would be normal.

2) Second stage begins when the “waterbag” appears

This is the top of the fluid-filled membranes and will break when she starts actively pushing to expel the lamb. It should not be longer than half hour from when the water bag appears to the first signs of actual lambing. And no more than 60-90 minutes for the lambing to be complete. At this stage, monitor at least every 30 minutes. But keep a distance if the ewe does not appear overly distressed. 

When you see little feet appearing at the vulva, watch closely. Look at the lamb’s feet and if the soles are pointing towards the ground or the sky; soles pointing down mean it’s front legs, but soles pointing up mean these are likely to be back legs. A backwards lamb is more likely to need help. A ewe making progress will push the lamb further out with every contraction, until the nose and then full head and shoulders are out. By this point, one last strong push will birth the lamb, breaking the umbilical cord. After the birth, the ewe will turn around and start licking the lamb; this is necessary for them to fully bond, it stimulates and dries the lamb. And the gush of oxytocin that the licking releases also helps her womb contracting down.

3) Problem – the water bag appeared over half hour ago but nothing has happened since – or it has, and the ewe has been having contractions but unproductively.

This is the time to step in and check, as the lamb could be malpresented. Always wear gloves and use plenty of gel to have a gentle feel inside the ewe. If you are not sure what you are feeling for, best to call the vet sooner than later. It will save precious time, and there will be a better chance for the ewe and lambs to recover quickly if there has been no delay in seeking help. 

Vetster option 01 (Blog)

Please restrain from allowing many people to manipulate inside a ewe. It is stressful for her, the lambs may be pulled up incorrectly, and overall there are higher risks of infection and poor outcome if too many “have a go”. 

4) Problem – everything feels really tight and small with no lamb and maybe no water bag appearing.

Ringwomb is a condition where the ewe is ready to lamb but the cervix has not opened up sufficiently to allow a lamb to pass. The water bag may or may not appear. The cervix may be partially or completely closed; if a small opening can be found, you can try to gently insert a finger and stretch the soft tissues. If you don’t feel up for this task, call your vet.

5) Problem – the ewe has progressed to a certain point, with some parts of the lamb showing, but nothing more is happening; the straining has become unproductive, and the contractions are weaker.

This means the ewe is getting tired. And it is likely that your ewe is showing size disproportion (i.e. lamb too big for that ewe, or the ewe’s pelvis is too small for a normal size lamb), or a malpresentation. With gloves and gel, put your hand over the part of the lamb that is showing and gently slide inside the birth canal, following what you can feel. Can you tell if it’s a front or back leg? Does the head present in the birth canal, sitting nicely on top of the front legs, or does your hand feel a bony part – could it be a shoulder? Can you feel nothing but a rounded part and perhaps a tail? This would be a breech lamb. 

If you have never tried correcting a breech lamb I would suggest calling your vet and watching closely as they deliver it. Ask as many questions as possible, ask the vet to show you on the lamb once it’s born. There is a knack to turn and straighten its back legs before pulling it off. But it is best shown on a real “guinea pig”.

5) Remember, there may be more than one lamb!

If you scanned the ewes, you should have a record and expect another 1-3 lambs within 10-20 minutes between each other. As before, if the ewe does not appear to progress don’t leave it more than half hour before checking as she could be in need of assistance. Usually if you assist the first lamb out, it would be best to give the ewe a few minutes rest to start licking the first lamb, and then just bring on the next one.

6) Afterbirth (placenta) needs to be passed after the lambs and usually it will be delivered on its own fairly quickly. 

Ewes will often eat it, so don’t be surprised if you don’t find it in the pen. Don’t pull it if it’s hanging; it won’t do damage to leave it for a few hours while the ewe is bonding with the lambs. It will likely be gone soon. If it’s still present after 1-2 days of the birth, it would be best to call your vet for advice as the ewe is at risk of infection. 

7) Last but not least: find out if your local vets, college or other agricultural organisation runs “lambing courses”. 

They are very useful training for the new shepherd and a refresher for the more experienced one. They are very good value for money. You’ll get advice and practical tips on how to deal with most lambing issues. People usually give them very good feedback and it would be an opportunity to ask that lambing question that you haven’t found the answer for.

Please take this advice with a pinch of common sense

Many situations just can’t be covered in an article, and if in doubt about anything call your vet ASAP. It will be best for the ewe’s and lamb’s welfare if assistance is sought sooner than later, and no vet begrudges getting out of bed if called in a timely manner, with a final good outcome.

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