As unlikely as it may seem, a shepherd is occasionally called to take on the role of King Solomon in disputes among the ewes of the flock. I had just such a situation arise last Wednesday morning when I awoke around dawn to check the monitor and saw a lamb in the barn’s drop pen. Obviously, one of the ewes had just delivered her lamb, so I quickly made my way out to oversee the situation.

By the time I arrived, I found one ten-pound ram lamb surrounded by four ewes — either still pregnant or recently delivered — each claiming him as her own. The poor little guy, named Orrie, had no idea what all the fuss was about, but to the ewes, the situation was dire. Each one thought that the three others were trying to steal her lamb! The calling to the boy from the competing ewes was deafening, and with four tongues trying to lick him clean, the poor lamb had no chance of getting up to nurse — if he could even figure out whom to approach!

This was a bit of a dilemma for me. Giving the lamb to the wrong ewe could mean that when her own lambs arrived, there wouldn’t be enough milk for the three (or four!) lambs that this one mother must then feed. On the other hand, determining the birth mother is often difficult and occasionally impossible. I knew from experience that this could be a challenge.

The most bonded ewe was obviously Ireland, who had decided that this was definitely her boy. She still carried her lamb — she ultrasounded with one, but could possibly be carrying two, judging by her size. There was no sign that labor had occurred or that she had given birth. She was a mom wannabe and so she was definitely out of the running as a potential recipient.

Also in the mix was Jaylee, although I could tell that she was only there because it seemed the popular thing to do. As soon as I began to chase off the ewes, she left, happy to leave the care of this lamb to someone else. Obviously, Jaylee was also not his mother. There was no sign that she had yet given birth — although it was obvious that it wouldn’t be long.

Still in the running were the two remaining ewes, Jypsi and Molly, both of whom had obvious signs of labor trailing behind them as they walked. Orrie was very light-colored, and since Molly is quite dark, I thought the lamb probably belonged to Jypsi. This was in no way a sure thing, but of the two, Jypsi seemed more likely to have already delivered, so I penned Jypsi with Orrie and waited to see what would happen.

Jypsi was thrilled to have won the competition and settled down to mother him. It wasn’t long, however, before she was in heavy labor and soon delivered a ram lamb of her own, weighing nearly fifteen pounds. This triggered a worry that I had made the wrong choice. Orrie weighed just over ten pounds — not likely a twin to this newly born huge ram lamb. Molly, too, delivered another ram lamb in very short order; he weighed eleven pounds. Molly’s boy seemed to pair much better in size with Orrie, and Molly was supposed to give us twins. I saw no other lamb coming from her, so I realized that Orrie was indeed hers. Soon after, Jypsi delivered her second ram lamb, weighing a respectable twelve pounds.

This then left me with a problem. Jypsi had bonded with Orrie and now had two big boys of her own to feed. I knew that if I left Orrie with her, he would likely not be able to compete for the two teats against two such big siblings (twelve and fifteen pounds). Molly, on the other hand, had only one ram lamb (Otto) who was about the same size as Orrie, and Molly had milk for two since that is what she had delivered. I took what fluid I could find in and around Molly’s trailing afterbirth and rubbed it over Orrie, hoping Molly would lick at the boy, bonding herself to him. She did lick, but rather halfheartedly — and although she accepted him in the pen, she also wanted him to keep his distance. This was not a good sign!

An hour passed and although Molly accepted his presence, she was less than keen to allow Orrie to nurse. Every time he moved in the pen, she would push him roughly away. Yet in the adjoining drop pen, Ireland was in heavy labor and still calling to Orrie — whom she had not forgotten and still considered her own. I looked up Ireland’s records, and since she had only scanned with a single, I decided to take the chance: I once again moved Orrie to a new mother, this time with Ireland. She seemed adamant that he was hers, and it was obvious that his birth mother, Molly, didn’t particularly want him anyhow.

As Ireland labored, she licked Orrie and murmured to him as a dam calls her lamb — and Orrie answered back. Obviously a bond had been established early between the two that was not easily broken. After another half hour or so, Ireland delivered a big ram lamb of her own: Oman, weighing 14.5 pounds. As far as Ireland is concerned, she has two boys to mother — both hers, even if not by blood. Honestly, I can’t see any point in messing with what works, and thankfully, this does seem to be working!

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  • Bev says:

    Ewes’ claiming of lambs not necessarily their own surprises me (but I know nothing about sheep); I would have thought nature would give them better instincts. then again, as you say, no point in messing with what works.

    BTW, this is not Mollie’s first lambing season, is it?

    • Dee says:

      Actually, ewes will generally separate themselves off a bit away from the flock, if they can, to deliver their lambs. I think this is their way to avoid the stealing. On the other hand, the last thing we want is a ewe separating herself from the flick in the barn by moving outside onto a snow bank to deliver her babies – so we lock them in a few days before. It increases the risk of lamb stealing but improves overall lamb survival. They have to be at just the right stage of pregnancy to want to steal: close enough to their own delivery that their mothering hormones are surging, but far enough before that they can focus on a lamb that isn’t theirs.

      Molly gave us Nillie last year as an almost-yearling, and then twins this year, letting us know she will be quite productive in coming years.

  • Julie says:

    We went out to the barn one night and found two ewes had delivered and there were SEVEN lambs in the drop pen with them. My husband just picked the lambs closest to each ewe and put them in the jugs. I’m sure they weren’t all with the right ewe but everyone was happy.

    • Dee says:

      This generally works pretty well as long as each ewe has enough milk for the number of lambs they end up with. On the other hand, if one or more of the lambs have wandered off, there is sometimes no ewe who wants to claim that one. These types of situations can, at times, get a bit complicated. It isn’t so much about putting them with their own babies as making sure every ewe is willing to mother the babies they get!

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