After the birth the ewe meets her lamb, if she has delivered it herself the first thing she will do is turn around and begin nibbling at the afterbirth. If she hasn’t birthed it herself the first thing we do is put her lamb in front of her and get her up on her feet. She will then usually begin eating the afterbirth, hungrily licking her lamb and making a maternal quiet grunting sound. I think this sound is both an expression of maternal pleasure from the ewe and the beginning of communication between her and her lamb. A healthy lamb will be crying out, bleating loudly and trying to make sense of the situation. Within minutes the lamb is usually on its feet. The mother is stimulating him with her voice and the firm pressure from her licking and nuzzling helps bring him round. A ewe may push her lamb towards her milk and stimulate him from his back end beneath his tail, his tail will wag and he will waken some more. If a rogue lamb gets into a pen then the sheep will usually smell their behind this is how they check if it is their own lamb and more often than not will butt the imposter pretty sharply to let it know it’s not wanted. Alas not all mothers have that maternal instinct and they do nothing, they give birth and walk away not even aware of what has happened, this can happen most frequently with shearlings (a sheep that’s having her first lamb) If the lamb has been born inside in a large pen another sheep may even try to steal it, the maternal hormones are so strong in most pregnant ewes at full term they desperately want a lamb, even if it isn’t their own.
There are many things humans don’t sense that a sheep can sense. Sometimes if a ewe has more than one lamb they may reject one in preference for the stronger fitter one, more chance of survival. Last year a lamb was born without a voice it was quiet and not at all like a baa, the ewe rejected him and he became a pet.
So the maternal bond is less about sight recognition and more about the sense of smell, sound and fitness for a sheep and this knowledge helps us a little when we try to adopt a lamb onto a sheep.
The communication and maternal bonding is something that just happens it isn’t man made it is caused by nature for survival of the species and it is amazing to watch. Relying on that natural instinct is what makes the job of being a shepherd much easier. In a flock of hundreds of sheep as the lambs get older they will often separate from their mothers to go and play out with their mates, racing, chasing and leaping and not one person on Earth who isn’t moved by that. And it is purely by voice recognition that the lambs will return to their own mothers when called in. This can be seen clearly when I enter the field with a dog at foot, all dogs are wolves to a sheep with lambs and the sheep are always alert when they merely seem to be grazing they are sensing. As soon as they see or hear a dog they will begin looking and calling their lambs in. The lambs will call back and run to their mother, sometimes they get it wrong and the mother soon pushes them away, when the lamb returns to its own mother it will usually feed and the ewe checks it is hers by smelling.
As the lambs grow both mother and babies need more grass and we have to cart them by trailer to fields further away that have been hopefully been growing grass at rest. The lambs travel on the top of the trailer with the ewes below and the noise is deafening at separation. But when they arrive at their destination they are ‘mated back up’ by sound and smell recognition all calling to each other.
Like with all things in life there are always exceptions to these rules of nature, this natural gift in sheep isn’t always as strong at first and the lambs can get separated from their mother. We always put ewes and lambs out in pairs in the bike trailer but with a good distance away from another family; we also mark them with a sprayed on number, the same number for each family and we keep singles, twins and triplets in separate fields so we know if a sheep is without a lamb when we check round the fields.
Some lambs are abandoned and if they get separated for a while and don’t seem to be going back to a mother and are still too young to go it alone they will become a permanent pet they won’t be adopted onto another mother once they grow too big.
We do lose lambs, not all live but we do our absolute best to birth, revive, feed, nurture and raise all the lambs that are born on the farm, it isn’t about money that its about life getting a chance of life, the sheep getting a live lamb to raise and we give them all the best chance we possibly can. When lambs die during and soon after birth or later they are put into a sack and when it is full they are collected by the deadstock wagon ‘the knackerman’ I call up when we have a full bag to collect, we are charged a collection and disposal fee. It will seem strange to people outside farming that we don’t bury them but it is a farmer’s responsibility for the safe and legal collection of fallen stock. while we wait for the carcases to be collected we have to make sure it is stored safely away from animals and birds. You are allowed to bury pet animals, pets are described as being animals belonging to a species that are not consumed by humans so this doesn’t include sheep, cows, pigs, goats and poultry. I have made exception to that when I have lost a pet lamb that I have been raising as my own and would not have been consumed or culled. There are many reasons a lamb might die at birth or after too many to discuss here and we get something different every year. Some deaths could be prevented but we can’t be everywhere all of the time but we do our best to be vigilant. Weather can be an issue, cold exposure and pneumonia, starvation not getting enough milk, not sucking soon enough and not getting colostrum, weak at birth, birth into the sack and it doesn’t rupture therefore starved of oxygen, prolapsed ewe, lambing too long brain damaged, sheep death, physical deformities, cleft palate, born without an anus, torn navel which causes a huge hernia, ewes laying on lambs, overeating causing bloat.
The most difficult lamb deaths are the ones that have been into arklidsclu which stands for Arklid which is the name of our farm and sclu is the Special Care Lamb Unit. This is where a lamb has become a patient for however long it takes to get them going. This involves feeding, tubing, warming, treating, nurturing and loving. Every year I get better at it, I know when to let go and have a lamb put down now and when to keep on trying. I had to have three put down last year at a week old, one was physically deformed and couldn’t stand, one never sucked and one had a cleft palate. But there were also many that I saved too; I stitched a lamb’s navel up that had burst out and he lived and I managed to get a lamb going on a baby teat because he couldn’t close his mouth around an ordinary lamb teat. And at the end of lambing time last year I had 7 pet lambs left that hadn’t been adopted onto another mother and were raised completely by myself. We’ve kept two of the gimmers (females) Violet and Mary and they will become mothers themselves next year hopefully. Pet lambs is what takes up most of my time and energy during lambing time but it is the part where I am left completely to my own devices and although it is exhausting it is what I enjoy, helping an animal in need. I name them and a maternal bond is created between the lambs and myself. Of course it is less based on smell and sound and more upon an instinct but having kept Minxie my pet sheep I now realise that the lamb also recognises a human mother’s voice out in a field just as it would its own sheep mother.