Real-life Soay lambing stories: jugging sure beats bottle feeding bummer lambs

Apart from lambing itself, the best part of raising Soay sheep is communicating about them with other breeders, folks interested in starting a flock, researchers looking for various kinds of data, the anonymous readers of our website and this blog, and especially anyone with questions about lambing issues. Most of the time the questions come by phone, sometimes at odd hours, but virtually always with a note of anxiety or embarrassment (“I know this is a stupid question, but …”) coming across the wires.

Rarely does the exchange of questions and suggestions occur exclusively in print, so ordinarily by the time I remember to post something about the question that might be useful to others, it has gone out of my head or at least has been muddled. But last week we got a question about how to avoid bottle babies and the entire conversation occurred by email. I decided it might be helpful to share the exchange verbatim so you can see how this sort of thing progresses in recreated real time.

Let’s start with the email exchange itself, and then I’ll add a few comments.

The story begins on Saturday, April 19, 2014, when an email arrived from fellow Soay breeder Susan Akins. We know Susan because she bought Nympton — a stunning white-faced, black-nosed British Soay ram — from us last year. Here’s her first email to me, shown in italics.

9:08 a.m. Hi there, hope your lambing season is going well. I have a question. One of my ewes just lambed about an hour ago. She is a first timer, the birth was breach, but only took a few minutes. The ewe licked the lamb off very well and seem attentive, however once the lamb stood up and tried to nurse she has become very aggressive and will not let the lamb near her. She continues to lick it, but it it tries to go near her back end at all she backs up and puts her head down to block it.
I’ve never had an issue with Soays lambing before so am not sure what to do. She is out in a pasture – I don’t have facilities for lambing pens, the best I could do would be a horse stall (12×12), but am afraid that catching her and moving her there would stress her more. Do you have any advise or suggestions? P.S. This is Nympton’s 1st lamb! Susan

Nympton sires an almost-bummer lamb

Nympton sires an almost-bummer lamb

9:36 a.m.My first message back to Susan: To my dismay, all I have is a work phone for you – hoping you get this message right away. Please put the ewe and her lamb into a jug as soon as you possibly can. I have a couple of good blog posts about it, but here’s the short version:

1. Set up the smallest area you can, and if at all possible, in a place where the ewe can’t see out. This is a very temporary arrangement. Your 12×12 is better than nothing, but the space can be only about 4×4 if possible.

2. Go out and pick up the lamb – at one hour you can easily do this. Just pick it up. If you happen to have a pair of rubber gloves, put them on so the lamb won’t smell like you. But better to jug barehanded than not at all.

3. Now walk slowly backwards, no matter how far, towards the jug you’ve made. Hold the lamb down far enough that the ewe can smell it and follow you. If the ewe shies away, stop until she gets curious again and follows you. Keep up this two steps forward, one step back, until you get to the jug. THe only trick is to keep the ewe curious enough to follow you. SHE WILL!

4. Put the lamb in the jug, wait for the ewe to go in to examine it, close them in, and go back inside for a cup of coffee, preferably with a fresh croissant (just kidding).

If the distance is really too far to walk, put your trusty dog crate in your truck, drive out to where the ewe is, and put the two of them in the crate for a couple of hours.

Here’s the goal: this happens every year with one or more of our first-time mothers. Near as we can tell, they think the lamb is a coyote attacking them, since the lamb just caused severe pain to the ewe’s back end. Once she is in a jug with her lamb and has licked it enough, her hormones kick in, the “oh, you’re my lamb” lightbulb goes on, and they will bond. You can let them out in 3 or 4 hours. We keep ours in jugs for a day just to be sure, but it really is a Eureka moment for the ewe. But you need to do it while the lamb is still small enough that it can’t run away from you. Feel free to call any time: 541-899-1672. Good luck!

3:23 pm message from Susan to Priscilla: Hi Pricilla, sport I hadn’t gotten back earlier it’s been a hectic day! I made the jug a 4×4. I caught the lamb but the ewe wouldn’t follow. I had to chase her into a catch pen. She’s been in the jug with the lamb several hours undisturbed. When I just went to check her the lamb was outside the jug peaking in and the ewe was trying to bash it every time she saw it peak in. There is a small gap the lamb can fit through, I had left it inside with her. Right before I caught her she had bashed the lamb across the pasture even when it was laying down. Looks like I have a bottle lamb? I did manage to hold her for the lamb to nurse a little. She really seems to hate this lamb. Me chasing her probably didn’t help. Susan Sent from my iPhone

5:03 pm message from Priscilla to Susan: Subject: Re: jug the ewe and lamb
wow, tough call. bottle babies are a lot of work and the absence of colostrum and continuous access to tiny meals is hard to overcome. if you can possibly hold the ewe every half hour or so at least through this evening for the lamb to get some colostrum before the lamb loses its ability to absorb the colostrum at least it will get the antibodies. if you decide to bottle feed, you might read up on scouring and get a packet of Advance ARREST tomorrow or monday so you will have electrolytes to keep the lamb hydrated if it starts to scour. If you want a quick verbal primer on the balance in feeding milk replacer and electrolytes, by all means call. it might save you time.
hopefully once the lamb gets a little more of the ewe’s milk in it, the lamb will smell right to the ewe and her lactation hormones will settle her down enough to accept the lamb. still worth a try!!!! wish we were there to take turns holding the ewe. it’s worked for us several times, including a beautiful little tan ewe lamb we named little orphan annie.
GOOD luck,, Priscilla and Steve 541-899-1672

5:05 pm another message from Priscilla to Susan: If you jnow how to gently milk out the ewe, try capturing a teaspoon or so in a jar or lid or something, then smear it on the lamb’s face and rear end to help the ewe “recognize” the lamb.

5:34 pm message from Susan to Priscilla:Good idea! I will do that. Thanks again for all your advice and concern I really appreciate it 🙂

Jasmin and her almost-bummer ewe lamb happily bonded

Jasmin and her almost-bummer ewe lamb happily bonded

early Sunday morning, April 20, 2014, 8:25 a.m. message from Susan to Priscilla:Thanks to your good advice the ewe has now accepted the lamb! It took about 6 hours of letting the lamb nurse every 30 minutes – I also rubbed milk onto the lamb. Thanks again for sharing your expertise and caring. I’ll try to get a picture taken today in the sunshine of them. Happy Easter! Susan

So what did Susan and I learn from this exchange? First and foremost, she avoided a compromised bottle baby, a lamb that would start life with two strikes against it: inadequate or completely missing colostrum/antibodies and far from optimal nutrition and growth pattern for the first several weeks of its life. Second, jugs work, especially when a ewe will not accept its lamb. Lamb + mother in close proximity, with no distractions, is a formula for bonding that almost never fails. Third, let’s all keep talking to each other whenever an issue comes up. We learn from everyone’s experiences. And besides, it is so heart-warming to hear the words “thanks for sharing and caring.” Shepherding doesn’t get much better than this!

And what about Priscilla, what did she learn, aside from how nice it is to make a difference for another shepherd? I thought I had said it all on the subjects of jugging and avoiding bottle babies, but here’s one more piece of advice: even if you don’t like to jug all the time and you prefer to leave the ewes and lambs in the field, at least put together one makeshift jug. It can be four pieces of hog panel with either plywood or cardboard around the bottom couple of feet so the lamb won’t simply crawl out of the jug. Four pieces of plywood securely anchored together in a box shape will do in a pinch and will have the advantage of blocking the ewe from seeing what her sisters are up to outside. You want her totally focused on her lamb. But whatever you make it out of, have something ready to go before lambing starts so you can concentrate on walking that lamb slowly backwards to the jug while you keep watching the ewe to be sure she is “stuck” to the lamb. And then once you’ve gotten them safely in the jug, watch instinct kick in. It is a joy to behold.

Susan, thanks for letting me share your story and congratulations on your fetching little white-faced ewe lamb. Give her and her mom a good nose scratch for me, will you please?

For now …