THOSE few hectic weeks of lambing see the culmination of a year's shepherding. Unfortunately, no matter how well founded your efforts during the proceeding months, things can go disastrously wrong unless you familiarise yourself with the typical signs of impending birth.
The gestation period for sheep is five months. It helps enormously if you have made a note of when the ram was introduced to your flock or even better, jotted down the actual tupping date from noting when raddle marks appeared on your ewes. Armed with this information you should be able to work out when your first lambs are due and to which ewes.
If you've a large flock you can also use this information to split the flock into groups and feed accordingly which will help with food bills and avoid steaming up late lambers up too early.
Signs of lambing can vary from ewe to ewe so keeping a sharp eye on all flock members is vital. We always check every four hours, day and night, which ensures any ewe that is in trouble is not left for too long before help is at hand.
Even so, it is not uncommon for some ewes to get the job completed during this time lapse so that the first thing you know about it is seeing a couple of healthy lambs wriggling their tails at the milk bar. On the other hand, you'll also get the diva that spends hours in restless theatricals!
Generally though, all share common symptoms that should alert you to the fact that lambing will soon be taking place. The ewe's udder will have "bagged up" several days or even weeks previously, progressively becoming harder and fuller as parturition approaches. You'll often see the nipples stand out and about a day before, the belly sinks so that she seems, as my dad is fond of saying, "gone in the flanks". You'll also notice that the vulva seems pink and swollen. (This often occurs several weeks before hand as well, so don't get alarmed if your lambing dates are still some way off!).
When lambing proper gets underway, the ewe often refuses to come to the trough. She'll probably stand in a corner, looking slightly bewildered, but shows no other obvious signs of lambing activity. Sometime later, and this depends on the individual, a clear discharge develops and the first water bag may appear. There are two water bags, the larger one protecting the head and a small one lower down the body. The water bag often bursts once it has exited and tends to hang in a membranous string. The ewe becomes progressively more uneasy and can exhibit foot stamping and scraping motions, also lying down and straining.
As labour progresses, she will be seen to strain more and more. She'll either stand or lie down to do this with the lamb emerging within the hour. Most lambs are born correctly presented, i.e. head first, with the two front legs forward. You shouldn't really need to interfere with a normal birth, so once you are satisfied that the emerging nose is flanked by both front feet then keep a discrete distance, but make sure you can see what is going on in case you have to help out at some point.
Why would you need to do this? Occasionally a lamb can be born with the amniotic sac intact which unless action is quickly taken, can result in the lamb drowning in its own fluids. Also, our Suffolk lambs, although usually large, are not particularly vigorous and some show little inclination of wanting to breath and have to be persuaded by nose tickling, smelling salts or even swinging.
You should also check that air ways are clear by removing any mucus from nose and mouth and a non-thrifty lamb would benefit from being draped over its mother's shoulder with the head hanging well down to allow any fluids to drain. Mum can see her baby and will start to bond. Once you are satisfied the lamb is breathing properly, allow the ewe to spend a few minutes licking the lamb without your interference. After this you can help dry off with towels or straw and then spray the naval with either antibiotic spray or iodine. Don't forget to do this as the naval is an open wound and a major source of infection.
Mal presentations are a major problem in pedigree sheep, especially Suffolks, which are notorious for needing assistance in a high percentage of cases. If you keep native breeds or the more vigorous commercial hybrids then lambing problems will be a great deal less. Even so, at some point in your shepherding career you will have to give nature a helping hand to bring about a successful birth.
The most common lambing problem is when the lamb is correctly presented, i.e. with the head forward, but with one or more front legs back. Occasionally, if the lamb is small, the ewe will still lamb herself, but mostly assistance is needed.
You should suspect a leg back if there has been a lot of straining over a half hour period and very little progress, i.e. no sign of a lamb. Never let this go on for longer than an hour at maximum. A gently feel around is called for at this stage.
Remove rings and watches and wash hands well with soap and water before rinsing in disinfectant. Apply a liberal coating of lambing gel. Gently insert your fingers into the vulva and try and locate the head. This might already have pushed through the cervix and even be dangling outside the ewe. In this case try and push the whole lot back into the womb. (Be gentle). If you can do this it will be easier to feel back down the lamb's head and shoulder to locate the bent leg or legs. When you have found the hoof, cup it in your hand if you can, if not hook a finger around it and gently draw forward.
Feel for both front legs and gently pull with the ewe's contractions. Be sure to guide the head through the cervix as well if it is not all ready through.
Not so common, but still seen quite often is the breech position. This is when the back legs are presented first. Suspect this if there is a lot of straining and very little discharge. Sometimes you will see the tail appear which does a lot to clarify the situation!
Speed is of the essence in this case. Push as much of the lamb back into the womb as you can and ensure that the back legs are straight and not doubled under the lamb's body. Grasp the legs and draw out as quickly as you can. The reason you have to be quick is due to the umbilical cord breaking while the lamb is still inside the womb. Once this happens the lamb will start to breath taking in fluid instead of air and could drown.
Not seen very often, thank goodness, is when the head is back. I have only had to deal with this once. It was one of the few occasions when I've had to resort to using a lambing rope. Although I could get the head forward without too much trouble, it kept slipping back when I tried to bring the legs through the cervix. If you do need to use a lambing rope, it needs to go behind the ears and through the mouth, not around the neck! It's quite fiddly to get in place if you are not in the habit of using a rope and I remember panicking at the amount of time it took me to get it in place. Fortunately the lamb, although sickly, did survive.
Multiple births, by that I mean more than two, don't usually cause major problems, but just occasionally there can be a real mix up of limbs that can be quite a headache to sort out. What usually happens is all the lambs are trying to come forward at once and sorting out which leg/head belongs to who can be quite a nightmare! If you can get the first lamb through things get progressively easier, but don't spend too long trying as there is a strong likelihood of losing lambs if you don't get professional assistance early.
Speaking of professional assistance, if you are at all doubtful of your abilities, don't delay calling your vet. Time really is crucial if you are to successfully resolve a lambing problem. As with any farm animal, cost does have a part to play, but you can counter this somewhat by taking the ewe to the surgery rather than having the vet come to you and will be considerably cheaper. Most vets are agreeable with this arrangement and can usually sort out the problem without even unloading the ewe from your trailer.
Courses: Magdalen Project - A half-day course in lambing, led by Magdalen's vet, Kat Bazeley, from the Kingfisher Veterinary Practice, Crewkerne. A practical and theoretical morning learning about all aspects of lambing from the pre-lambing preparation of the ewe and the process of lambing to complications and lamb aftercare. Lunch included after the course. January 22, February 9 2008,10am - 1pm, £42.00. For more information, call Kate on 01460 30144 or e-mail email@example.com. www.themagdalenproject.org.uk/magdalen-courses.asp.
Vale Training Services - Lambing Techniques, a one-day course for those new to lambing sheep. Instructor: Tim Mason. Cost: £75. Venue: to suit client. Maximum number of trainees, 6. At the end of the course trainees will be able to: Identify the signs of lambing, lamb a ewe, deal with lambing difficulties, prepare equipment and resources for lambing, castrate and tag a new-born lamb, understand the needs of both mother and new-born lamb, treat hypothermia in both new and older lambs. Date of next course: March 6 2008 Telephone: 01296 612201 or mobile 07801 833425; www.valetrainingservices.co.uk.
Viable Self Sufficiency - Lambing Week 2008. Residential course, mid- March. Hands-on practical lambing course for smallholders with a serious interest in sheep. Covering all aspects of the lambing time routine, the emphasis will be on lamb survival and animal welfare. Students will develop sufficient expertise to successfully manage their own flock at lambing, or to gain extra income by "contract lambing" on other farms. Tel: 01758 721898. firstname.lastname@example.org; www.viableselfsufficiency.co.uk/stoppress.html.
Derby College - Lambing course, one-day course covering all aspects of lambing. March 8 and 15, 9.30am - 4pm. Tel: 0800 028 0289; www.derbycollege.ac.uk/index.php?page=modules/courses/courses.php&moduleID=courses&curriculumID=109&curriculumTitle=Agriculture.
Books: "A Manual of Lambing Techniques", by Agnes Winter, The Crowood Press Ltd; New Ed edition (24 Feb 2003), ISBN-10: 1861265743, ISBN-13: 978-1861265746. A practical manual covering the period immediately before, during and after lambing. Covers normal and malpresentations, the sick in-lamb ewe, abortion, pre- and post-lambing prolapses, the health of the newborn lamb, problems and emergencies. www.amazon.co.uk/Manual-Lambing-Techniques-Agnes-Winter/dp/1861265743