Bedding for Soay lambs

With lambing fast upon us, we are reminded of a lively conversation on one of the Soay “chatlists” some time ago about what kind of bedding to put in the jugs, the lambing stalls, or whatever enclosed shelter areas are designated for lambing. Here’s one topic that is really easy to deal with, but worth a caution to beginners.

The best solution we have found after much trial and error is straw or waste hay that has fallen around the feeders but not gotten too wet or too soiled. Even if you have to buy a bale of straw, it is worth it. If the ewe and lamb are in the jug/stall long enough to foul their nest beyond your tolerance level, you simply shovel out the used straw or hay. It is lightweight enough for even the smallest shepherd to deal with easily.

Of all the substances you could put down on the stall floor, the straw or waste hay is least likely to stick in great quantities to the newborn lamb and if the ewe ingests some of it, no problem. And that’s really the deciding factor here.  et me explain by talking about stuff we think does not work.

The worst is sawdust or wood shavings, the type of material you might be tempted to use because it is easily acquired in your farm or pet store as dog and horse bedding. Dog or horse bedding seems like a great idea because it is so clean to start with, and just as light as straw. The problem is that the minute the ewe delivers her lamb onto the ground, it will be covered with shavings and look like a giant Hostess Sno Ball. Remember Sno Balls, the 62-year old marvel that most of us consumed in frightening quantities as kids? It is hard to imagine now, but back then we paid real allowance money for that stale round hunk of chocolate cake covered with marshmallow and then rolled in coconut that had a shelf life measured in years, if not decades.

But I digress. Don’t use sawdust or shavings in your lambing area. The shavings will adhere to the birth fluids and membranes covering the lamb from nose to toe, a gelatinous mess the consistency of old fashioned library glue. Remember the glue that came in a small bottle with a red slanted rubber tip that supposedly opened up when you pushed the tip into the paper to release the glue?  Yuk. The ewe will try hard to lick off all that membrane and fluid in short order and a fluffy, dry little lamb will emerge from its mother’s ministrations as if by magic — but not if the ewe has to work her way through a layer of cellulose “coconut.”  We are not even sure that it would be safe for the ewe to ingest that much woody substance.

More importantly than the possible discomfort to the ewe’s rumen, you do not want the ewe to hang back and wait for the encrusted fluids and membranes to dry and fall off of their own accord. It is essential that the ewe lick off her lamb and consume the mucous-like covering, which stimulates the ewe’s milking hormones and also stimulates and warms the lamb, getting it up and back to the udder for the all-important first meal of colostrum.

Another solution — sand — also has superficial appeal; the urine will flow right through it and the droppings will be easy to spot. We haven’t tried sand so we do not know how badly it would stick to the lamb. But the thought of shoveling out all that weight many times a week during lambing months gives this 60+ shepherd the vapors just thinking about it.

Bottom line? Use straw or waste hay, and plenty of it.

Happy lambing!