Some sheep producers know when their ewes will lamb. They know the window of time that each ewe will drop a little one, two, or three. These shepherds often use a “crayon” so that the ram marks each ewe as they are bred and the day can be recorded. Or the shepherd may put the ram with specific groups of ewes on a certain day and have a span of a week or two when their ewes will lamb. A few days before lambing the shepherd will close the ewe who is close to lambing in a “lambing jug” where the ewe is able to lamb in peace where her lambs will not wander away and she can bond with them for a few days.
Some shepherds prefer their ewes to give birth on pasture so long as their sheep are safe and their lambs won’t be eaten by dogs or coyotes or the dreaded black vulture that chooses to prey on the living rather than on carrion. My sheep fall into this group who lamb outside. I thankfully have high fences, lots of electric wire, and the scent of a big dog, Abel, to keep the hungry hounds away and there are few black vultures who come nearby.
The breed of sheep I chose to raise, Katahdins, are motherly and calm. They bond with their lambs quickly and have strong maternal instincts. When Cindy lambed last year, I found that she had pawed through the snow into the hay below prior to giving birth so that her lambs would land on dry, clean hay rather than the hard, cold snow. Fawn gave birth a few days later, choosing to lamb inside the shelter due to the increased wind that morning. These wonderful mothers knew just what to do to make sure their lambs entered the world safely.
Once the lambs were on the ground, they were quickly cleaned and urged onto their feet to nurse. And nurse they did! When lambs nurse, their tails flap all over the place! That’s how you know they are getting milk, those happy tails! All three of my ewes gave birth around 6am last year. By evening, every lamb was clean, dry, and well fed, following their mother around. Being the awesome mothers that they are, but terribly unable to count, the ewes frequently called out for their little ones. It seems though, that even if both lambs are stood by their mother replying to their mother’s low baa, their mother will still search for another lamb. She may stare at both of them and then call again and spin around until she is satisfied that all of her children are with her.
My choice of allowing my sheep to follow their instincts and lamb on pasture or in their shelter also applies to my seemingly “lax” breeding system as well. Generally, I know when my ewes are cycling as they get a bit feisty and begin to head butt one another and get into little spats more often than normal. My ram spends a lot more time following them around. But I don’t take off his apron until the time is right. I have a broad window of when my sheep may give birth, but I at least choose the start date for that window! I prefer my ewes to lamb in early February, so I take off the ram’s apron, which prevents unwanted breeding, in September.
My previous ram was older when he was first introduced to the flock and I was sure of his ability to provide lambs. However, this year my ram is a young fella and although feisty and insistent, I can’t be as sure of when my lambs might be born. So I watch for the signs, wait, and check off another day. I lift their tails to see if udders are producing milk and hug their round bellies hoping to feel a hoof. In prior years, I’ve seen the lambs kicking even! It seems that ewes so often lamb in the foulest of weather, so maybe I’m just waiting for the first bad snow of February. So until then, I’ll watch and wait.