Mothering lambs

My February calendar is filled with ewe names followed by numbers: the names are assigned to the date they’re due, and the number following each name tells me how many lambs she is expected to have. (This year, all our lambs will have names beginning with P.) In comparison to later weeks, next week’s calendar is fairly simple: Lolita and Ireland are due on Tuesday, Millie and her daughter Ossidy are due on Wednesday, and Jypsi is due on Thursday. I love it when due dates come in such a nice, tight grouping. There is a better chance that the ewes will deliver within a few days of each other, and perhaps — if I’m lucky — I’ll get a few days off before the next group of three delivers their lambs the following week.

Millie with daughter Ossidy, minutes after moving into their jug (pen) for their first night.

Last year: Millie with daughter Ossidy, minutes after moving into their jug (pen) for their first night.

Wednesday could be interesting, since mother and daughter are due on the same day. This is not an unusual phenomenon. It’s actually fairly common to find mother/daughter, sisters, or best friends delivering either on the same day or within a day or so of each other. When this happens, they generally end up in adjoining lambing jugs, and I think this is sweet. The fact that they share such a close bond within the flock and then share this experience too, touches my heart.

In 2007, our then oldest ewe Zoe gave us Grace (who is still in our flock). The next year, both Grace and Zoe bred with twins, and I worried about how such a young ewe (Grace was six days shy of her first birthday) would manage a rambunctious set of twins on her own. I should have known better. When the time came, Zoe delivered her twins, Hannah and Hanson, just before Grace went into labor. Grace had watched Zoe’s delivery with rapt attention, obviously marveling at the sight, as do most of our young ewes. Shortly afterwards, Grace went into labor and gave us twin ewe lambs. She did fine through the delivery, and I later penned her in the next open jug — the one right next to her mother, Zoe.

In those first days, as Grace was making the transition from carefree lamb to adult ewe with two lambs of her own, Zoe was adjusting to her new lambs. With the shared panel between their jugs, Zoe could see her daughter but could not physically interact with her. I saw something very unusual that year, and I didn’t have enough experience at that time to understand just how unusual it was. Zoe reached out to support Grace in the only way she could: through vocalization. Zoe began to speak to Grace with the soft chortling sound that mother sheep use with their newborn lambs. Although Grace was far from newborn, the bond was obviously still there. Zoe fell back on the only comfort she could provide from next door: the calming, motherly sound of her voice, using the language usually reserved for that strong social bond of the first weeks of life. She chortled to her own tiny lambs, and she chortled to her now-mothering daughter next door. Zoe was offering support as only she could.

Grace easily raised her twins, and her daughter Heather was part of our flock for years before being moved out. The sounds of Zoe softly chortling to Grace in the next pen stuck with me, though. Through that experience, I came to realize that lambs learn to mother not only from the carefully timed hormones that surge through their veins but also from personal experience and from watching those flock members with whom they share a bond. Like many of us, they learn from their mothers.

As a result, we began to lock our bred ewe lambs into the drop pen earlier than we normally would. That is, even if they weren’t yet due, they would be penned with ewes who would be lambing soon. I decided that the experience of watching a half dozen adult flock members deliver their lambs and mother them after birth could help the novice ewe lamb when her time came. And the plan has worked better than I ever expected. Unlike our experiences early on, we very seldom come across a ewe lamb who delivers her lamb(s) and doesn’t know what to do, one who doesn’t mother her babe well.

Ossidy, taken last fall at breeding

Ossidy, taken last fall at breeding

Yet Ossidy is in a class all her own. For the first time in our sixteen years, we have a ewe lamb bred to deliver during the first week of lambing — a ewe lamb who is due before the vast majority of the flock and who may even be the first to deliver this year. Without the ability to observe more experienced mothers, Ossidy is facing a bit more of a challenge. I’m not quite sure how this will go.

She’ll be locked in today with her mother, Millie. Although Ossidy is technically due on Wednesday, she could go into labor as early as tomorrow. Only Ireland and Lolita are due before her — and they’re die only one day before. Either or both could end up delivering late, or Ossidy could be early, making her the first mother of the season.

Thankfully she will have her mother, Millie (due the same day) at her side in the drop pen. I don’t know how it will go for Ossidy, but I have faith that Mother Nature, Millie, and the flock will have things covered — that Ossidy will do just fine. After all, she comes from good breeding, and sheep have been delivering lambs for millennia; they’re still here, so they must have what it takes.

I’ll be watching Ossidy and all of the ewes in the drop pen closely, and I’ll let you know what happens!


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  • Erika says:

    I am so happy to hear about ewe lambs learning from their mothers and other flock members. My ewe lamb, Clara, is due 18 days after her mother and 3 weeks after 3 other older ewes. Hopefully, she will watch carefully, take notes, and be able to make the transition to mom easily. I only have 7 ewes so they are all together. Everyone sees what everyone else is doing.

    • Dee says:

      I think that if you watch her carefully, you will find her reaction humorous. They usually watch intently, and sometimes jump back in surprise when the lamb first moves or when it falls over when learning to stand and walk. I only wish I could read minds at that point – I would love to know exactly what they are thinking!

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