Like all babies, lambs need lots of nourishment. But if a ewe won't nurse her young, the baby's death can occur fairly swiftly. Immediate action is necessary if the lamb isn't allowed to nurse or the ewe can't provide adequate milk. Starvation is one of the three primary causes of lamb death, along with hypothermia and difficulty during the birth process, according to the Virginia Cooperative Extension.
Healthy ewes giving birth to single lambs don't usually experience difficulties with nursing. However, older or very young ewes, underweight ewes and those with multiple lambs might not be up to nursing or might not have sufficient milk to feed their babies. Such ewes are also more susceptible to disease after birthing, such as pneumonia or diarrhea, known as scours. Those illnesses can cause them to stop nursing their lambs. While you should check all the ewes and lambs in your flock at least twice daily to ensure both are in good condition, pay extra attention to these at-risk ewes.
If a ewe experienced a difficult labor, she might be too weak and tired to nurse her offspring. If a cesarean section was necessary to save the lamb, you'll have to arrange for alternative nursing for the baby, as the mother is still recuperating from the surgery.
Mastitis occurs when the udder becomes inflamed or infected, making it hard and painful. In ewes, it's generally the result of bacteria of bacteria getting into the mammary gland. It can occur any time during the nursing period, from shortly after birth until the lamb is ready for weaning. Affected ewes generally stop eating and develop fevers; you might notice a ewe holding up a hind leg to deny her lamb access to the udder. While antibiotics can cure the infection, the lamb can't nurse from his mother while the medication is in her system. You'll need to bottle-feed him or wean him early if he's at least a month old.
If your ewe won't nurse a newborn, you can try grafting the baby to another ewe who recently gave birth. Basically, the grafted ewe is the adoptive mother. For this procedure, choose a healthy, calm ewe who gave birth to a single lamb. You should smear the scent of the foster mother's lamb on the adoptive lamb, which makes her believe this is also her baby.
The other, more common alternative is bottle-feeding the lamb. The lamb must consume colostrum, that rich, antibody-filled first milk, within two hours after birth. Keep colostrum on hand, storing it in the freezer and thawing it when needed. If sheep colostrum is unavailable, cow colostrum can substitute. After 48 hours, you can switch to a commercial lamb milk replacement, bottle-feeding the lamb a minimum of three times daily.
- University of Maryland Extension: Mastitis in Ewes and Does
- Montana State University Extension: Managing the Sheep Flock During the Lambing Season
- Virginia Cooperative Extension: Newborn Lamb Management
- University Extension: Care of Ewes and Lambs at Lambing Time
- University of Illinois: Grafting - a Lamb Saving Management Tool
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Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.