Nosy aunts and wandering twin lambs: a dilemma for Soay shepherds

One of the few vexing behaviors of Soay sheep is the tendency of a first-born Soay twin to be temporarily
“adopted” by a meddlesome “aunt,” another ewe who has not yet lambed but whose hormones are starting to kick in. Let me explain.

It is not uncommon for pregnant ewes to be very curious about what’s happening with a ewe in labor. In fact, Steve recently put up pictures on our website showing pregnant ewes in our Maternity Ward watching as Coda gave birth to our first lambs of the year. If the nosy aunt gets too close to the birthing mother, the new mom will simply butt the nosy aunt away (where is my video cam when I need it?) and nothing bad happens.

Once in a while, however, a first-born twin will not stay near the protection of its mother, but instead decide to go exploring while its mother is busy delivering a second baby. Little does the wandering lamb know that if a well-meaning aunt licks the little traveler while its mother is busy, the mother is likely to reject her first-born because it no longer smells familiar.

In essence, the lamb has become a stranger. If that happens, the lamb is out of luck. The aunt cannot nurse the baby because the aunt does not yet have milk. The lamb’s mother will not let it nurse and will attack it if the lamb tries to get at her udder. If the mother cannot be persuaded to accept the lamb, the only recourse is to turn the rejected lamb into a bottle baby. Not a good solution.

We have had one bottle baby and a couple of close calls over the years with ewes rejecting their wandering lambs. Bottle babies, at least in Soay sheep, are a bad idea. They are deprived of their mother’s high-quality milk and also of the very frequent feedings their digestive systems expect, and they don’t have their mothers looking out for them. We will do whatever it takes to avoid another bottle baby. I have not one but two success stories to report from this year’s lambing, thanks to Shawn, who used an age-old trick.

Early one morning last week while we were still asleep, Shawn came out to the Maternity Ward at about 5:00 am to find that Ella Poole had delivered up a nice set of twins. The only problem was that the first-born had been cleaned off and adopted by a helpful aunt, probably because the first lamb wandered off. Here’s how Shawn described it in his jug note:

“Big [first] lamb had been born. While ewe in labor with second, big fat auntie ewe cleaned first. Ella didn’t want it after.”

When Shawn first put Ella Poole and the twins in the jug, it was lamb-o-cide in the making. Ella no longer recognized her lamb by its scent and wanted to get rid of it and was in the process of doing just that by bashing it around the jug. Immediate intervention was necessary.

Shawn noticed that the second-born still had a lot of its birth fluids attached to its back, so he simply picked up the smaller one, flipped it upside down, and in his words, “smeared first lamb with goop from second.”

About that time I showed up and, hearing of the dilemma, went in search of the pool of birthing fluids out in the Maternity Ward. Bingo! Shawn and I slathered the wandering lamb with the cruddy-looking but fresh placenta.

With our fingers crossed, Shawn put the rejected lamb back in with Ella Poole and its slimy younger sibling and lo and behold, Ella turned to the rejected lamb, gave it a good sniff, and proceeded to start gurgling and licking it off. Luckily, covering the lamb with all that “goop” had worked.

Now okay, but bond is fragile. First lamb may have nursed some off auntie. Belly seemed full-ish. Lambs lying separate. Put them together, seems ok.”

Side note: Shawn occasionally encountered this problem in the research flock he tended while he was in college at Oregon State and apparently it is sometimes caused when the “auntie” is about to lamb and her milk has started to come down. We do not think we have had that happen on our farm, but if it did, it would only exacerbate the problem of the wandering lamb. Not only would the lamb’s coat smell like the other ewe’s saliva, but its mouth and back end would smell like the other ewe’s milk, all the more reason for the birth mother to reject her lamb.

One other side note: If time permits, it is a good idea to put on a pair of disposable gloves for the slathering process. For one thing, the birth mother is already inclined to reject her lamb and you surely do not want to make matters worse by adding your foreign scent to the mix. Also, the process is obviously a little yucky, at least the first time, and having the ability to simply strip the gloves off and throw them away when you have successfully reunited the mother and its lamb is nice.

Finally, for those of you who, like me, are fans of the documentary film Sweetgrass, or if you have read either Storey’s Guide to Sheep or Ron Parker’s The Sheep Book, you may already know about this slathering technique for grafting a lamb. Commercial breeders use it to graft an orphaned lamb onto a foster mother. But the same technique works just as well for getting a Soay ewe to welcome back her wandering lamb.

As for our second success story, it is a little more complicated so I will save it for a later post. Meanwhile, do whatever you possibly can to prevent Soay bottle babies!

For now …

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