Most of the time you know when you should expect your sheep to give birth. We, however, had a ram with the herd most of last year and weren’t so sure. That’s how we ended up with a little surprise lamb in December. Right now we are expecting our other ewe to lamb pretty soon, so I am keeping a close eye on her for signs that indicate she is starting labor.
Pregnancy in sheep takes 5 months minus 5 days (so about 145 days). Depending on the breed the lambing will usually take place at the end of winter or early spring. There are some breeds that can breed year round, so they will be more unpredictable.
Sheep are herd animals, and usually stay close together. If a ewe wanders away from the herd this can mean two things: she is either sick or close to giving birth. A close eye should be kept on any sheep wandering away from the herd. If you are expecting your ewe to lamb soon, the first sign will be that she wanders away from the herd, she is looking for a quiet place to give birth. Ideally we would now put her in a stall where she can lamb. Make sure she is still close to the herd and able to see them to minimize stress.
Here’s a picture of my ewe and how she has been acting the last couple of days. Though the herd still stays close to her (she is their leader), she has been laying down while the others graze, she’ll get up and walk and graze some and then lay back down again.
A ewe that is close to lambing will be restless, she may lie down only to get up again a few seconds later. She’ll walk in a circle and lie down again. She is looking for a place to give birth. She might chase other ewes away. We might see her scratching her front feet on the ground. Actually, sheep are not that different from humans giving birth, they show many of the same behaviors. The ewe will walk in circles, just trying to get comfortable. She may seem slightly nervous and keep licking her lips. She’ll look back towards her belly because she feels something is happening (contractions).
You can tell a ewe is going to give birth in the next couple of days when the udder starts filling with milk, this can start weeks before birth, but will become extremely noticeable as she gets closer to giving birth. Closer to the due date you can see the vulva swelling and turning from pink to slightly red, due to enhanced blood flow to the vulva. The next sign is seeing a slimy substance hanging from the vulva. This is a sign that the birth will be happening within a few hours. It is best to leave the ewe be at this time, disturbing her can slow down the birthing process.
The next thing that will happen is that a sack filled with amniotic fluid will protrude from the vulva, which will eventually burst under pressure. You should be able to see the ewe having contractions at this point, she’ll stretch her body at every contraction to make the pain more bearable She might even make a little noise at each contraction. Usually at this point the birth should be over quickly.
If the birth is not over quickly and the ewe is getting exhausted a veterinarian should be called! Especially if it is the ewe’s first birthing. The lamb(s) might be in the wrong position or the lamb(s) might be too big. Some breeds are notorious for giving big lambs and having birth problems, so make sure you know your breed.
Make sure all membranes are removed from the lamb’s head and clear the mouth and nose from slime so it can breathe freely. Let the ewe take care of the rest, but keep a close eye on them for problems. The ewe will lick her lamb clean which helps them bond. Within an hour after birth the lamb should be up and drinking.
Pay attention to the ewe, you should be able to see the afterbirth within a few hours after giving birth. The afterbirth should come out by itself, if this doesn’t happen a veterinarian should be consulted. After delivering the afterbirth the ewe might eat the afterbirth, this is not necessary but perfectly fine as it supplies her with extra protein and minerals. Your ewe should be up and acting lively soon after birth, if she acts sickly make sure you call a veterinarian.
I hoped this helped you to know what signs to look for when your ewe is close to giving birth. Are there any other signs you can think of?