January has been busy on the farm, with some new lambs arriving right from the first of the month. I had hoped for lambing to start with warmer weather and longer days, but as luck would have it a young ram had hidden with the ewes before breeding was to officially start.
It is quite amazing how the lambs are on their feet and nursing without any help, except for perhaps a nudge or two from momma ewe. The Border Cheviot sheep are known for having very hardy and lively lambs, which is a good thing when the weather is cold and changeable. Although the ewes are various crossbreeds, the ram was a Border Cheviot which was a good thing.
Lambs are usually dropped just before it gets light. The ewe finds a quiet spot to lamb, away from the rest of the flock but still in sight of the flock. Often a ewe will be accompanied by another ewe who will be nearby, almost like a midwife. Usually lambing will proceed normally, and rarely do they need any help. If they have been well fed, but not overfed, and have had access to the outdoors and exercise, they will have fewer problems.
Sometimes the ewes will come and look for me. It is not unusual to have a ewe with her new lambs on our lawn, looking into the dining room in the morning. They follow me to the barn, knowing that some molasses, hay and grain is waiting for them there.
If it is cold like most January mornings, with a hard ground and frost, the lambs will be just fine. They have a good amount of brown fat which is to generate body heat in the newborn lambs. In contrast to white fat cells, which contain a single lipid droplet, brown fat cells contain many smaller droplets and blood capillaries, with a special component called the mitochondria that is the powerhouse of the cell. Lambs don't do as well if there is an icy rain and the momma hasn't lambed in a sheltered area, so the shepherd's job is to check on everyone at daybreak – or sooner, if the weather is poor. I carry in my pocket or backpack small special woollen sweaters and a special molasses-based “lamb start” just in case the lambs are chilled.
The momma ewe licks the lambs to clean them off, and it also helps to stimulate the lambs and helps to bond them. The momma ewes can identify lambs by smell, and will gently (and sometimes not so gently) nudge a strange lamb away. A lamb's brain is hard-wired to look for the udder, and they will stick their nose up under each leg until they find a teat, or nipple. (If a newborn lamb is placed beneath a chair, it will go to each leg of the chair and stick its nose up toward the seat of the chair, looking for the udder). The ewe will patiently stand there, nudging the lamb's rear end with her nose to help the lamb find her udder. The ewe will also talk in a very unique way to the lamb. It is so unique that, even in a field of fifty ewes or more, the lamb can tell its mom's voice, and she can identify her lamb by its bleat. The instincts are all there, even in a first time lamber.
The new mom and lambs (usually there are two) will stay back from the flock as they bond. Most shepherds around here use lambing “jugs”, which are small private areas for the ewes and lambs to bond separated from the flock, preventing “mis-motherings” or injuries to the lamb. Some will have the ewe lamb out in this small pen, but I prefer to have the ewes choose where they lamb, and if needed I will move them to an individual pen later on. If the weather is good, and the lambs are strong and all is well, I will leave them on their own. The mom might choose to take the lambs under the trees, or into the barn.
The first milk, called colostrum, is thick and yellow and rich in energy, protein, vitamins, minerals and antibodies. The antibodies from the mother help to protect the new lamb from disease in the first part of its life. I often bring some grain with me to give the momma a treat after lambing. If the weather is good and things are going well, I will leave them for a few hours. If it is necessary to move them, I just pick up the lambs, holding them in a special sling so they stay low to the ground, and the momma ewe will follow them as I carry them to the barn. The trick is to keep them low, because if they are tucked under your arm, the ewe can't see them and, in her mind, they have either disappeared or they are “flying” and not recognizable (unless they cry for their mom).
There are lots of tricks a shepherd has to have under their sleeve, so to speak. The most valuable skill is to observe and learn from the sheep.