It may be that you are out walking the hills of Britain one day around Easter, admiring the views and enjoying the exercise when you spot a sheep behaving differently from the rest of the flock. You may see a ewe standing up, then lying down, standing up again and pawing the ground. She is standing away from the rest of the flock. She may be bleating or grinding her teeth. She might in fact be giving birth.
Take a seat nearby. Not so close as to worry the sheep and preferably out of her line of sight. You are about to witness one of the wonders of Mother Nature.
About five months (between 142-152 days) ago, this sheep was 'tupped' by a ram. In human terms, the sheep 'had relations with' or 'knew in a biblical sense' or 'had a good time' with a male sheep. Quite frankly, the ewe had sex. Now you are about to see the results.
Most sheep have no problems at all giving birth and you will be able to sit back and enjoy one of nature's everyday miracles. A small number of sheep may have difficulties however. Normally, sheep give birth standing up, or kneeling on their front legs. However, if the birth process has been going on for a prolonged period of time, it may be tired and lying on its side.
How Do I Know Things Are Going Wrong?
The first thing you should see happening is that the waters will break. This will be quite obvious and you won't miss it. About an hour later, the sheep will start to give birth. If it is having twins however, it may be up to two hours before anything happens. If nothing has happened after two hours, start to get worried.
Find the Farmer!
The best course of action is to find a farmer, any farmer. Look around for a farm or a small hut on the hillside that might be a shepherd's bothy. Ask at any house you see for the farmer. Only if you can't find the farmer or shepherd should you consider helping the sheep.
The very first thing to consider is, if you are female and are pregnant yourself, don't think about helping the sheep. You run the danger of contracting Chlamydiosis, an infection caused by Chlamydophilia Abortus. Chlamydiosis is thought to be transmitted by inhalation of aerosols and dusts heavily contaminated with Chlamydophilia Abortus, which is the agent of enzootic abortion in ewes. It can cause serious disease in the unborn child, leading to miscarriage, stillbirth or abortion. Go and look for the farmer again.
OK, you're a bloke or you're a woman and you're positive you aren't currently (or planning to be) pregnant. Untie your bootlaces; these may be needed later. Wash your hands and arms. If you happen to have rubber gloves in your rucksack, put them on. If you also happen to have any lubricant such as KY jelly or Vaseline, smear your hands with it. If anyone asks why you regularly carry rubber gloves and lubricant while out walking, refer them to this article.
Slowly so as not to alarm the sheep, take up a position to see what is going on. Have a good look-see. Directly under the tail, there is a hole. This is the anus. Anything that is happening in this area doesn't concern you. Directly below the anus is the vagina which should have a little lamb's nose and two front feet poking out. If there is nothing, don't panic. Using your clean, lubricated hand, have a feel inside the vagina and try to ascertain if the cervix is fully dilated. If it is, it will be quite a large opening, (about four inches) and will feel quite solid. If it is a lot smaller and feels soft to the touch, the cervix is not fully dilated. Massage and stretch it with your fingers until it opens up fully.
She's Fully Dilated But The Lamb Isn't Coming Out
The most common cause of birth complications is when the lamb is big and the sheep is small. In which case, you're going to have to give a helping hand. Reach into the sheep again and feel for the lamb. The head should be pointing towards you at the top of the sheep, (towards the spine). The two front legs should be tucked under the lamb's chin. If you can only feel one leg, or none, gently feel around for the legs. Pull them downwards and towards you. Now take one of your bootlaces. Make a loop and slip it around the legs of the lamb to stop it slipping back inside while you go looking for its partner. Periodically, while you have had your hand inside the lamb, you will have felt the sheep having contractions, trying to push the lamb out. The next time you feel a contraction, gently but firmly start to pull the lamb out. Once the head and front legs are clear, keep pulling but rock the lamb from side to side to ease it out.
It's Pointing Backwards!
If the lamb is coming out backwards, (back legs first), don't try to turn the lamb around inside the womb. You'll run the risk of getting the umbilical cord caught around the lamb's neck. Make sure both legs are lined up towards you and gently pull the lamb out in time with the contractions if possible. Take great care when doing so as it is very easy to break the lamb's ribs with this type of birth.
I Think There's More Than One
Twins are quite common, more so in lowland sheep. You are going to have to sort out who's who in there. Find one head then follow the neck until you find the front leg. The front leg on sheep has two joints which both bend in the same direction. The back leg also has two joints, but they bend in opposite directions. Making sure you have the front leg, pull the leg into the birth canal and tie your bootlace around it. Now find the other leg, making sure it belongs to the same lamb. Pull it into the birth canal too and secure it with your bootlace. Now, make sure the head and two front legs of the same lamb are all lined up right and pull it out in time with the contractions. Repeat the procedure for the second lamb. Make sure the first lamb is kept warm while you birth the twin. On occasion, sheep have triplets, so be prepare to repeat as many times as is necessary.
The Lamb's Out, But It's Not Breathing
A prolonged birth can often cause the umbilical cord to become detached so the lamb may not be breathing. Also, the plug of mucus in the lamb's throat that it needs in the womb may not have come free. A first step is to tickle the lamb's nose with some grass, trying to get it to sneeze. Or, you can try massaging the lamb to try and stimulate breathing. However the most effective way of getting a lamb to breathe is to pick it up by the hind legs and gently swing it in a 180° arc a few times. This invariably works. If it doesn't, the lamb is a stillborn and there is nothing you can do. Giving the kiss of life will only force the mucus plug into the lungs.
Introducing Lamb To Parent
Lay the lamb down by the sheep's head. The mother, however tired and emotional, will start to lick the lamb clean. Incidentally, if you suffer from chapped lips or dry skin, the lamb is covered in lanolin which is excellent for chafed or cracked skin. At this point, step back and let Mother Nature take over again. Once the lamb has been licked clean, he will find his way to his mother's teats. Sheep have two teats and in the days before giving birth, the mammary glands have been busily producing milk for just this occasion.
Mum Doesn't Seem Interested
Sometimes, particularly after a difficult or painful birth, the ewe doesn't want anything to do with the lamb. She won't clean the lamb or help it find her teats. Your help is needed again. Using straw or grass, rub the lamb down. Leave some of the mucus on the lamb to help the mother identify it. This cleans and dries the lamb and helps stimulate the circulation. It is very important that the lamb gets its first feed now. The first milk from a ewe after giving birth is laden with colostrum which the lamb needs. Colostrum is remarkable. It has over twice as much protein as ordinary milk. It is a thick, yellow super-concentrate, packed with extra nutrients and antibodies needed by, but not naturally present in, the newborn lamb. Colostrum kick-starts the immune system in the lamb and one feed of colostrum will keep the lamb alive for 12 hours. Put the newborn lamb at the teat as soon as you notice a sucking reflex. If the lamb is weak and unable to nurse, milk out the colostrum onto your finger and rub it around the lamb's mouth. This should let it get the idea and it will begin to suckle. Transfer the lamb from your finger onto the teat. Once the lamb has had a good feed, milk out some more from the teat and rub it onto the lamb's face. Bring it back up to the ewe's head again. The ewe will recognise her own scent and will hopefully accept the lamb.
Is That It?
Pretty much. Don't worry about the afterbirth. This will be expelled naturally after an hour or two, but can take as long as a couple of days.
It could be that all your poking around has stretched the vagina overly and, combined with the birth and the straining involved, the sheep may have pushed some of the birth canal wall out of the vagina together with the afterbirth. The uterine wall is red or dark pink. Throw the afterbirth to one side and push the uterine wall back into the vagina. Tie some of the fleece around the rear of the sheep across the vaginal entrance to hold it in.
Now Wash Your Hands
If everything has gone to plan, ewe and lamb should now be getting along great. You can go on your way, happy that you have done a good deed. However, if you find yourself falling down a lot or having difficulty walking, go back and get your bootlaces and tie your boots.
If the sheep still has not taken to the lamb, keep the lamb warm and let it feed as often as it wants from the sheep while you wait for the farmer or shepherd. During the lambing season, the farmer will check his sheep two to three times a day, so you shouldn't have long to wait.