“There’s aye something” the shepherd says to me as we stand pondering a couple of lambs, now 48 hours old and dropping with watery mouth.
These lambs had been a dour(quiet) pair to say the least. They had lambed on me the previous night to an extremely kind ewe, had been slow to foot (stand up) and even slower to suck (suckle) with Shep intervening and putting them on to the ewe twice during that night and the following night. This entailed sitting the sheep onto her backside and laying the lambs down, then getting the tit (teat) into their mouths and encouraging them to suck. In all fairness the ewe’s tits were a bit low hung but to many other lambs this would have been no problem. These two were just dozy, quiet, sappy individuals whom you couldn’t help but think had no will to live. They may well have been slightly premature, or they may have been born with a defect which wasn’t obvious to the eye, either way they were going to get their wish, death was heading their way.
There are a number of factors important to a lamb’s survival and well being in the first few hours of its life.
Firstly, that it is born. Mal presentations can cause death. The lamb is supposed to be presented in the ‘diving’ position. Two front feet and a head, coming together. If you imagine your arms outstretched you’ll realise that it narrows your shoulders, this is the required position for a lamb to be born successfully, narrowing its body sufficiently to enable it to pass through the birth canal.
Secondly that the ewe stands up and commences to lick the lamb. Lambs are born in a sheet filled with amniotic fluids. A bit like a bubble or balloon I guess. Often this sheet will break as the lamb is being born, occasionally it doesn’t and the ewe standing and turning around ensures it does break, releases the fluids and allows the lamb to breath. Once born the umbilical cord naturally breaks, once the cord is broken the lamb needs to breathe for itself. If it is what we call ‘in the sheet’ it has a strong chance of suffocation or drowning, this doesn’t take long, there’s been many a time over the years I have run to release a lamb out of the sheet and as many times one has died in the sheet.
By licking the lamb the ewe is not only drying and cleaning it up but she is also setting the lambs circulation away; she is almost massaging the lamb with her tongue; she mutters away lovingly at the same time making that first vocal connection with her new born. The lamb responds by beginning to move as life fills its little body. Its head is the first to be raised and an important sign to look out for. A ‘slow’ lamb will not rush to raise its head, ideally the head should be up within no time, if not there may well be a problem.
Quite literally within a number of minutes the lamb will be thinking of getting footed (standing), a kin to watching someone drunk trying to master their legs. The lamb will wobble and struggle on until finally it succeeds and stands up, this will warm the body and also get the circulation pumping.
Once up on its feet the lamb has a built in instinct to seek out food – milk. Lambs do not graze for a number of days, they are totally dependent on milk to begin with until their stomachs alter and allow them to accept solids.
This is the third important factor towards the survival of the lamb. Colostrum. The name given to the first milk it receives from the ewe. The colostrum is a rich milk, full of natural antibodies which gives the lamb a good start in life. By sucking the lambs digestion kicks in, it’s circulation is already up and running, now it is necessary to get the stomach working well too. As this first milk enters the lambs body you find the lamb begins to shiver. A full lamb will often be seen lying quiet and ‘shivering’ away. I take this as a sign that the milk is working, not only is it warming and feeding the lamb but it is also setting the cogs in motion to get the plumbing sorted.
Because the fourth factor to a lambs survival is that its bowels and waterworks work. A lamb is born with faeces inside of it; this ‘first muck’ has a name which at the moment I can’t recall. It is black in colour and needs to be passed; a lamb which does not pass this muck is susceptible to watery mouth. From then on the colour of the muck takes on a milky look. As in a milky look I mean yellowness. Depending on how much milk and how rich depends on the colour but those who really are getting a belly full will pass muck that is bright yellow, of a claggy consistency and smells like cream cheese ( which in actual fact will be all it really is).
When the lamb heads in for its first suck the ewe will be seen to lick the lambs tail and bottom. Not only is she being motherly and still licking her lamb clean, she is also encouraging it to make its bowels work. This nuzzling on at the lambs backside is yet another vital factor to all things kicking in and getting the young lambs system up and running.
The majority of the time these four factors happen quite naturally. Occasionally they don’t, a lamb doesn’t foot, doesn’t get sucked and doesn’t pass muck. This is where the shepherd comes in to try and sort these problems, keep the lamb alive and prevent it from going down with something such as watery mouth. Which takes us back to the beginning and the shepherd saying “Aye, there’s always something!”
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