Sheep generally feed their own lambs and no others. In fact, it is often very difficult to get a ewe to take an orphaned lamb, even with enticements. Shepherds use many tricks to try to accomplish this feat — some tricks working better than others — and a successful adoption is something to be proud of, especially since they don’t tend to happen easily.
There are reasons why ewes are loath to share milk with lambs who are not their own — and the reasons make sense from a sheep’s perspective, however inconvenient they may be for the shepherd. A ewe knows that she has a limited amount of milk to offer her lambs. If she were to feed the lambs of another ewe, it would take food away from her own — and that bit of milk could be the difference between life and death for her lambs. Mother Nature has made a strong instinct to procreate, and once the lambs arrive, that instinct morphs into the instinct to nurture and protect the new offspring. Ewes who would normally run and flee at any other time, will stand and fight a predator if they are accompanied by their lambs — the instinct is that strong.
Yet occasionally a lamb will not get enough milk from its own mother. Many of these lambs perish; they fall asleep one night with an empty belly and never awaken, dying of hypothermia in their sleep. Others are more determined to live. They know that there is milk out there, and they begin to look beyond their own mother’s teats. These are the milk thieves.
I was in the barn the other day and noticed that we once again have a milk thief in our mixing pen. Myth delivered three lambs about two weeks ago. She has a good amount of milk — and she would have even more if all of her lambs were constantly sucking on her — but her ram lamb, Remus, is a relatively small and mellow little guy. He finds it hard to get what he needs from his dam for two reasons: Myth likes to schedule specific feeding times (and three lambs can’t all get onto her in the allotted time), and the two very aggressive ewe lambs push their smaller brother away during nursing. Poor Remus is hungry, but he’s also a survivor!
He has figured out that although his own mother allows feedings only at particular times, other ewes allow their lambs to nurse whenever they want. The smart little fellow then figured out how to nurse from another ewe while allowing her to think that his sucking was actually the sucking of her own lamb. As her own lambs nurse from the side or front, he scoots in from the back and grabs the teat, sucking for all he is worth. He knows his time is limited, so he makes good use of what time he has. Eventually the ewe figures out that this sucking lamb is not her own, and she spins around to head-butt him away. But Remus is not deterred! He simply moves to another ewe whose lambs are nearby. He makes the rounds of all the ewes in the mixing pen — and with each additional family added, he becomes more proficient at his routine, getting all the more milk for his troubles.
Once a milk thief has begun his work, there is nothing to be done until he weans. Even though the adults will continue to head-butt him, he has learned that he can find what he needs to survive — and that is the ultimate goal. Eventually he’ll be able to keep himself going on the grain and hay that we’ll provide to the lambs in the creep area, but not for another six or seven weeks. Until then, we have a milk thief in the mixing pen, and his name is Remus!