A Bummer Soay Lamb: Lessons Learned

It was a dark and stormy morning last Thursday.  I was in town and Steve was running the lambing operation solo.  Delighted to find Fulmar with a big (5 lbs, 4 oz) ewe lamb in the area reserved for pregnant ewes, he jugged them and then went about the normal routine of quieting the din in the Maternity Ward proper with several flakes of fresh hay and a little beet pulp for the nursing mothers.

And then all the wheels came off.  There, amidst the nursing moms and their big three-week old lambs, was a little bitty brown thing with no distinctive markings and no ear tag – a newborn lamb.  But whose? And where was the mother?  Someone was where she did not belong.  Either the mother had panicked, jumped out of the adjacent lambing area, and lambed instead with the 3 dozen mothers and 4 dozen lambs in the comparatively chaotic main part of the Maternity Ward and lost her lamb there.  Or, the lamb had been born in the lambing area but then crawled out.  But which ewe and where was she?  Was Steve really going to have to lift up 3 dozen tails to see which ewe besides Fulmar had lambed overnight?

Step one:  count noses in the pregnant ewe area.  Sure enough – one short.  The most likely candidate to have had a really little lamb was Gweek, and Steve did not see her.  Thinking he would find her by carrying the little lamb around the Maternity Ward sort of like a sniffing dog at the airport looking for drugs in luggage, Steve was hoping the lamb’s mother would smell her “work” and follow along to a jug.  Lo and behold, that is exactly what happened.  When Steve picked up the lamb, all the ewes but one scurried away, and only the presumptive Gweek paid any attention to the little lamb in Steve’s blue-gloved hands.  She sniffed and gurgled at the baby and dutifully toddled along right into a jug, where she (the ewe) and the little lamb proceeded to nuzzle and slurp approvingly at each other, sounds that always reassure a shepherd that all is well.  Steve’s sigh of relief probably could have been heard far beyond the friendly confines of the Maternity Ward.  Only the ritualistic checking of the ewe’s ear tag remained (remember this is a lab scientist who used to keep meticulous records of several hundred of his tagged lab mice).  I can only imagine the sound of Steve’s jaw dropping open when he discovered that the little lamb’s “mother” was not Gweek at all, but rather Tolcarne, who already had a three-week old lamb!  And not just any lamb, but one with such distinctive markings that no mother with even minimal visual acuity could mistake her for someone else.  (Never mind the universally accepted common wisdom that any ewe worth her salt can recognize her lamb 100% of the time by smell alone).  Look at Tolcarne’s lamb Buttermere.  Does she look like a little bitty nondescript brown sheep?


What … on … earth … was … going … on?

See what I mean about wheels coming off?  Mind you, I was still in town at this point, calmly going about my non-sheep business, while all this was taking place.

Back to the pregnant ewe pen went Steve to find Gweek, who he persisted in believing was the lamb’s mother.  With no small amount of relief, Steve realized he had miscounted by one and all the pregnant ewes were in fact accounted for, including Gweek.  And that, faithful readers, left only one explanation: Fulmar had twinned, and the little one had wandered off.  A sense of deja vu crept crept into Steve’s consciousness.  The same thing happened to us last year with another little bitty lamb, Otley, who crawled out of the same kind of opening — the slot between the bars of a Shaul panel – only to be found lost and wandering around the Maternity Ward bellowing like a miniature hippo.  You would think we would learn, eh?   Would you be surprised to learn that as of this moment, there are no more slots for tiny lambs to crawl through?  Maybe.

But I digress.  Fortunately, this year’s little bitty lamb was warm and clearly had managed to get a meal off Fulmar or Tolcarne or somebody, so Steve caught the little one, took her temperature just to be sure, and put her in with Fulmar and the other twin while he pondered how he could possibly figure out whether the little one had gotten any colostrum from Fulmar during the night.  Fulmar, however, was not about to buy into the proposed new arrangement.  She wanted nothing to do with this unfamiliar creature and she proceeded to bash the poor unsuspecting little lamb against the plywood sides of the jug.  Ack!  We never want to lose a lamb, but especially not at a point where we are behind in the lamb gender lottery.

Armed with the knowledge that a ewe’s milk is always the first choice for a lamb and so is living with sheep rather than with people, Steve considered whether to try to graft the little one (since named Patterdale, which beats referring to her as “hey ewe”) onto Tolcarne on a permanent basis.  Even though Tolcarne seemed willing enough, it nonetheless seemed too risky, especially given the disparity in age between Tolcarne’s own lamb and the proposed adoptee, and also the fact that Steve had no idea whether Patterdale had gotten any colostrum.  And so, for the first time in our tenure as shepherds, we had ourselves a bottle baby.

From then on, the process has taken on a certain regularity using well-established guidelines for dealing with bummer lambs.  Most importantly, we needed to get colostrum into Patterdale immediately.  She was approaching the 12-hour-old point after which her system would no longer absorb the critical antibodies that will protect her for several weeks until her own immune system kicks in.  Fortunately for her, in the rare cases we have lost a lamb, Steve has been diligent about milking out the ewe beginning right away and continuing for about a week, in order to have an ample supply of frozen milk for just such occasions.   In this case, Steve was able to strip some milk from Fulmar and boost Patterdale with another ewe’s frozen first milk as well.  Once Patterdale had her furnace running, Steve quickly dipped her navel, tagged her (at last!), and off to our house she went.

Patterdale is pleased to report that her home-away-from-home, a wire dog crate lined with clean straw and a little fresh hay, and seated on the cement floor near our breakfast nook, was quite satisfactory for the first few days.


The crate continues to be her bedroom, but she spends her days in a “run” composed of a leftover set of wire puppy panels and lined with an old college dormitory bedspread in a lovely shade of ovine brown plaid.


Relying on our references of choice, Storey and Parker, we set up a feeding regime to meet the twin goals of getting Patterdale growing, but also avoiding scours by overfeeding.  She only weighed 2 pounds 4 ounces at birth (even smaller than the sainted Miss Otley), so the temptation to stuff her with ewes’ milk (never cows’ milk!) was strong.

Here’s a really short course in bottle feeding an animal the size of a very small Soay lamb, adaptable to your circumstances:  Day one, 2-4 ounces of colostrum if you have it, plus 1-2 ounces more of milk — no more.  Best to administer one ounce (that’s two tablespoons) at a time.  Days 2-6, between 6 and 12 ounces of milk total, depending on the lamb’s enthusiasm for eating.  Second week, 12 ounces or so per day.  If the lamb is getting milk but still hollers, it is probably thirsty.  Feed plain water in the bottle or heavily dilute some milk.  If the lamb starts to scour (diarrhea), cut back on milk but dilute it so the lamb will not dehydrate.  The warnings about scours in Storey and Parker are surprisingly strong.  One of them says bluntly that you can kill a bottle-fed lamb by overfeeding it, so err on the side of underfeeding it.

We have not yet faced the issue of when and how to re-unite Patterdale with her twin, mother, cousins and aunts in the Maternity Ward.  Not surprisingly, we have grown quite attached to our little house companion and Steve delights in sitting in her playpen on a chair scavenged from my kindergarten classroom back in rural Iowa that lets him get closer to her without having to sit his middle-aged carcass on a cement floor.  Molly, our border collie, sits remarkably quietly on the other side of the cage, enjoying the sight of a rescued lamb frolicking around the huge sandals belonging to the gentle giant.


Just a minute, you may ask, haven’t you left out a critical part of this report?  What was going on with Tolcarne?  What on earth possessed her to adopt the little lost soul?  Almost never does a lamb successfully poach off a ewe who is not her mother.  Remember Otley, the lamb who wandered off last year?  Only readers with truly impressive memories will recall that Tolcarne is in fact Otley’s mother, so for Tolcarne, perhaps there was a sense of “been there, done that” this time.  Perhaps Tolcarne remembered her plight last year and was simply returning the favor. On the other hand, shepherds far more experienced than we are long have cautioned that, however altruistic sheep may appear, they are not rocket scientists.  Attributing both long-term memory and a social conscience to Tolcarne seems a bit of a stretch.  We simply will never know why she, of all the ewes, took Patterdale under her care.  I guess that’s the beauty of shepherding – never a dull moment.

For now …

2 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Melinda says:

    Thank you so much for your blog. Our friend brought us an abandoned mouflon lamb yesterday and we’re hoping to help her grow up. She’s got the runs… so now we’re cutting her milk with more water. Will hit the feed store and the vet tomorrow for some electrolytes. She loves her bottle and always wants to eat, so I guess we over did it a little. Thanks for helping us help her. I hope she’ll make it.

  2. priscilla says:

    Melinda – don’t get discouraged too quickly. Once you figure out how much milk replacer, and at what dilution, works for your bummer lamb, she probably will start growing like a weed. At least your mouflon is probably a lot bigger to start with than our little Soay sheep bottle baby. Patterdale is still awfully small, but she still bellows through the barnyard and the feeding areas whenever she recognizes one of our voices. We should have named her “Foghorn.” Good luck with your little one! Priscilla