Lamb Rejection: One Solution


by Margaret Flowers

I dragged myself out of bed in the wee hours, and still half-blind with sleep, and staggered to the barn for the routine lamb check.  I really wasn’t expecting any action; there were a couple ewes that were full-term (barely), but at the previous late-night check, none had really full bags, nor any of the other tell-tale signs of imminent lambing.  Imagine my surprise when I saw a first-timer cleaning off a little badgerface lamb.

Then I saw the sight that nobody ever wants to see – the small lifeless form of another badgerface lamb on the far side of the pen from the ewe and her newborn, this little one clearly left for dead.  Or perhaps the ewe hadn’t realized there was another to tend to, and the little fellow hadn’t been vigorous enough to catch her attention.  Does this scenario sound at all familiar?

Of course, my first thought was, “Drat!  There’s a stillborn one.”  But then I saw a slight movement, and my next thought was, “Drat!  Now I will have to spend endless hours reviving this little lamb, and even if it survives, I’ll have a miserable job trying to get the ewe to accept him, but I’ll still end up with a bottle baby on my hands and a mother ewe that hates it.” 

Well, of course, I scooped him up, and rushed him into the house.  His temperature was so low that it didn’t even register on the thermometer. I was quite sure he was less than 5 hours old, so while I needed to raise his temperature, I didn’t need to include an IP glucose injection (whew!).  In retrospect, I should have put him (not including the head, of course) in a Ziploc bag, and then put him into warm water to raise his temperature, but, as I said, it was the wee hours of the morning (I’m a night person) and I didn’t think of that.  I found a suitable container - my salad spinner - that was just the right size, and would fit into the sink where I could run water of the right temperature.  Slowly his temperature came to nearly 99º and I dried him off well.  Time for food.  He did have a slight sucking reflex, but I thought that tubing him would be a better idea. With a tummy full of colostrum I’d put in the freezer the year before, it was truly remarkable how quickly he found his legs.  I took him back to his mother and brother, and rubbed him all over with the scent of both.  Mama looked at him strangely, as if to say, “I thought I only had one.”  She seemed to accept him.  I checked on him, and supplemented his food a couple more times in the day.

But at the night check, the ewe had pushed him out of the jug.  It was going to be very cold that night, so I thought that putting lamb coats on both lambs would be a good thing. The accepted boy got the red coat, and the rejected one got the blue. Then I decided that it would be a smart idea to bring the little one into the warm house, where I could keep an eye on him and feed him.  Then I’d see what could be done in the morning.

Next morning, as I was in the process of returning the little reject to his mother (after a good bottle feeding), I thought of a strategy that was at least worth a try: I would switch the lamb coats, and put the red coat that had been on the accepted lamb inside out on the little reject, leaving the blue coat with the scent inside.  During that day, I supplemented with a bottle a couple of times, and offered it as well to the brother.  I didn’t tie the ewe up and force her to let the lamb nurse; she did that on her own.  Even though the lamb coats were different colors, they looked enough alike (sheep see red as gray), and the lambs smelled enough alike that she accepted both.

Fast forward two days.  An experienced badger ewe (do we see a pattern here?) who had lambed with singles four previous times was in labor.  All of the previous lambs had been some flavor of badger – some spotted, some not – but with the very distinctive badger face.  Out came the first lamb: a badgerface ewe.  Then came the second: black gray with very little gray showing.  The ewe was up and cleaning them, and getting them both to nurse.  Excellent!

Only….three hours later there was the telltale glowering stare directed at the ram lamb, and the head-shaking.   Not again!!! Mama didn’t actually toss him, but she was pretty close to it.  Since it seemed that the first ewe had become comfortable with both her ram lambs, I whipped off their coats, and got them washed and dried as quickly as I could.  Red coat on the badger girl, blue coat on the gray boy.  This seemed to do the trick – at least the mama was letting the ram nurse when the ewe did, even if she wasn’t thrilled about it.  Problem solved again…I thought. 

Before I release a jugged ewe and lamb(s) into the general population, I take them on a walk.  This is a treat for the ewe, as this is the first fresh grass she will get, and it shows me if she can communicate with the lamb(s), and whether they can track her.  I usually do this on the second or third day after birth.  I also like to take the first “baby pictures” then.  Since things seemed to have worked out with the coats, I took them off before the little walk.  Mistake.  I got some great pictures, but it became obvious that the ewe again considered the gray ram lamb an alien being. 

Back in the barn, I tried the same coat switch that I had with the other family, but it seemed to really confuse the ewe.  So again, a quick wash and dry of the coats; then I put them back on the lambs the way they had been originally – red on the girl, blue on the boy.  The ewe was again cooly civil, again letting the ram nurse only when the ewe did. But as the days progressed, the ewe and lambs all bonded.  I let them out on a small pasture with other ewes and lambs, and had no difficulty in getting all back into the barn at night.  I did not force the ewe to allow the ram lamb to nurse, although some times in the early days, I distracted her by whispering sweet nothings in her ear and plying her with alfalfa pellets.  On the eighth day after birth, after seeming no evidence of aggression for many days, I removed the coats.  Success!   

Within a couple days of these events, I got a call from a frantic shepherd who had purchased some Shetlands from me the previous year.  As luck would have it, a first-timer lambed with twins in the night, and an experienced ewe who had not yet lambed stole one of them and cleaned her off.  By this time the real mother wanted nothing to do with the one, while doting on the other (which looked very different).  I suggested lamb coats…and now several days later, things are progressing well; the ewe is letting both lambs nurse without being restrained.  We are optimistic!  And yesterday evening, I assisted a neighbor’s Icelandic ewe though two malpresentations – a difficult birth process for all concerned.  The ewe was exhausted, but seemed to be taking a shine to the first-born (a ram), but was not attentive to her ewe lamb.  She wasn’t fully aggressive…yet.  My first thought – coats.  Sure enough, on an early morning check the next day, my friend found that both lambs had warm mouths and full tummies.  It’s cold and wet and raw….so the coats will stay on another day or so.  Just to be sure.

This, of course is a small sample, but it does suggest a method of using lamb coats to combat the problem of lamb rejection.  It is a process that takes a little time, but at least in these instances, seems to quickly take the edge off the aggressive behavior of a ewe towards a lamb she feels is not hers. 

As for me…my lamb coats are now washed, dried, and ready…in case I need them again.


Published in the Summer, 2016 issue of the ISBONA Newsletter