12 things you need to know about lambing

Are your ewes due to lamb? Are you ready? Here are 12 things to look out for.

Words: Nadene Hall


If you live in an area prone to mineral deficiencies, talk to your vet. Ewes deficient in selenium can be given a shot two weeks prior to lambing, while animals low in iodine can also benefit from a supplement.


It does seem sheep like to give birth in bad weather high on a steep slope – this is nature’s way of helping them to protect themselves by giving them a good view of any impending danger. However it means lambs can easily be lost down either side of the slope so try to bear this in mind when selecting paddocks for ewes close to giving birth.


If you are new to sheep ownership and are fretting about the impending birth, the number one rule is; don’t move a ewe in labour if you don’t have to. When her waters burst, a ewe uses the smell to anchor her to that spot. If you try and move her to a more sheltered, protected “sensible” place, a ewe will often risk life and limb to make it back to that smell. The less stress a ewe has around this time, the less likely she is to abandon her lambs. This instinct is so strong a ewe will often linger near to it for a couple of days after giving birth.


Research has shown the top reasons for lamb deaths are dystocia (difficult birth), starvation/exposure, amnion over nose, organ rupture and disease. A recent study by AgResearch has shown the mean mortality rate from birth to weaning was 14% in singles, 16% in twins and 29% in triplets. The primary cause of lamb deaths, from when a ewe goes into labour until the lamb is three days of age, is dystocia. The death rate goes up if a ewe is carrying twins or triplets.

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Young ewes usually don’t have as strong a maternal instinct as older ewes, although some breeds are just natural mothers from the start. If a ewe has her baby then wanders off like nothing has happened, often just putting her in a pen with her lamb is enough for her to realise she should be mothering. If mother still needs help, try rubbing the wet lamb on her nose and nudge the lamb’s bottom to get it nearer the udder (a ewe will nose lamb along so it tends to work better than pulling them). Tickling a lamb’s bottom when it has a teat in its mouth is often enough to get it sucking. If the tail wags or the belly is moving in and out, you can be fairly satisfied that it is feeding.


Wouldn’t it be great if you could choose the time of day your ewes lamb? No more midnight checking! US experiments have shown it may be possible to influence the time of day a ewe chooses to lamb. The system works like this: early on in pregnancy, establish a certain time of day for feeding your ewes. A consistent mid-morning feed, followed by little night-time stimuli (no noise, no bright lights) seems to encourage ewes to lamb during the day. The catch is, in this experiment by US researchers, flocks were able to be locked away in a protected area during the night.


A ewe that is well fed before giving birth will have more colostrum, more milk, stronger lambs and will bond better with her lamb. It is also less likely to suffer from sleep sickness. AgResearch has found that ewes bearing a single lamb have a feed requirement 29% higher than normal, rising to over 70% higher than normal for one carrying triplets.

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If you find a pregnant ewe is lagging behind her paddock mates, walking unsteadily, grinding her teeth and frequently urinating, you should suspect pregnancy toxemia, one of the most common afflictions in pregnant sheep. It usually affects ewes that are very thin, very fat or older ewes carrying more than one lamb. It indicates a dietary deficiency and the ewe will need treatment quickly. Always talk to your vet if you aren’t sure.


Lambs make a lot of demands on their mother and milk fever can often be the result. A ewe will go off her food, have cold ears, stiffen up, sometimes fall down and be unable to get back up and can then get bloat. Talk to your vet for the best treatment to use – you may be able to have something on hand to deal with any cases you come across. If she is down, prop her up between two bales of hay so gases don’t accumulate in her gut.


Every sheep is different. Belly’s can appear to drop, they may wander off to be alone, some stop eating, an udder can suddenly appear. Some ewes will paw at the ground and move around restlessly. However some ewes will not show any signs at all!


Normally, the best thing to do is nothing – leave your ewes to get down to business and remember patience is a virtue! That doesn’t mean to say you shouldn’t be checking your ewes often. If a ewe has given birth easily and everything looks ok, you should then see her begin to clean her lamb and give it a feed. If you can, cut the umbilical cord off (leave about 2-3cm hanging down), clean it with iodine and check that Mum is actually delivering milk – if you can, give a teat a feel to make sure the wax at the end has fallen off. Obviously, the more tame your sheep, the more you will be able to do these things without stressing her or her lamb.

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Often just encouraging a lamb to feed off its mother is enough for her to accept it. If you can help the lamb to do this for a day or two, the mother will often detect the smell of her milk on the lamb and in its droppings and accept it. Other tricks include using something smelly on Mum’s nose and the lamb ie cinnamon. You could try bringing a dog into the area – often maternal instincts will automatically kick in. But there are some ewes who just will not play the game. If nothing else works, make sure you are ready for bottle feeding. It is important to get that first feed of colostrum down the lamb’s throat by the time it is four hours old, so if Mum won’t accept it, milk some out of her or use your emergency supply.


– surgical scissors
– iodine
– dry towels
– a clean, dry pen for anyone who needs emergency care
– a bottle, teat and emergency colostrum supply
– a hair dryer and/or a heat lamp and/or an old electric blanket
– a glucose treatment and a tube feeder for administration
– shoulder-length gloves and lubricant

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Lifestyle Block Magazine.
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