Back in November last year, the 5th of November to be precise (so I could remember), I put Rambo in with the ewes.
In theory a 145 gestation period could result in lambs on 30th March this year (today).
However, I did the same in 2014 and the lambs mysteriously did not appear until the third week of April, which was slightly annoying as I had planned for lambing to occur during the Easter holidays and NOT just after we'd gone back to work. In the end one ewe lambed outside and a rather large lamb was sadly found dead in the morning. A second ewe had twins, but her labour took a remarkable amount of time. Our fantastic vets at Vets 1 could not have been more helpful with advice at the most ungodly hours of the night. The other two ewes failed to come up with the goods.
Now most people are very controlled about their plans and timetables for lambing. This is partially because modern breeds are too large to give birth without often needing help and intervention.
We on the other hand just put Rambo in with the ewes and leave him with them from then on. We are pretty relaxed about how many lambs we end up with each year.
We also plan to have lambs slightly later than most. This is because, being a small breed, there is no rush to get them up to weight. We have to keep them into a second year anyway so there is no point planning to have lambs at potentially the coldest time of the year.
As for the delayed lambs last year, when I read up I discovered that ewes can come into heat when a ram is put with them, but that the first cycle can be a false cycle. This would explain the lambs arriving three weeks later than we expected.
With Easter being early this year, I decided to go with the same plan as last year. "Remember Remember The Fifth Of November!"
So yesterday I decided we should separate Rambo from the ewes. They have been looking decidedly waddly and needed a break from Rambo's excited attention. We also planned to give them their pre-lambing deworming dose.
However, rounding up the five sheep was a lot more tricky than usual. Rambo was a complete pain, chasing the girls and doing his very best to unsettle them. The sheep have been living in the far field for a while now, their winter residence, and I generally just give them a cursory glance to check they are okay. However, once we got up close it became apparent, even to our inexperienced eyes, that the girls were a lot closer to lambing than we expected.
Because of this, we decided to bring them into the stables and to set it up for lambing in the morning.
Before I continue, I must explain that the ewe which unexpectedly gave birth to a dead lamb last year had showed no signs whatsoever of labour. You may be able to guess what's coming...
Sue went to let the geese out this morning and came upstairs with news of a lamb! 145 days exactly from the date Rambo went in with the ewes. He must have got busy straight away!
Everything seemed to have gone well. The lamb had fluffed up but mum was still licking it dry. Then mum sat down looking tired and lamb rested away from her. We had no idea whether it had yet managed to suckle. I should explain that it is very important for a lamb to suckle as soon as possible, since the ewe's first milk is known as colostrum. It contains all the antibodies from mum as well as being super rich. It is vital that the lamb takes this.
We quickly penned off the ewe and lamb and I decided to climb in and hold the lamb closer to mum. This did the trick as both sprang up into action and our little lamb at least went through the motions of straddling underneath mum's udders and headbutting them!
We left them in peace again - my favoured approach is to leave alone and try not to intervene. When we returned half an hour or so later, the lamb was busily gulping from mum's teat.
But the morning wasn't finished yet. I had someone visiting to buy some goose eggs (we are overwhelmed, despite Sue's best cake making efforts - goose eggs make the most wonderful sponges). I showed him the new lamb only to see that the fattest of the ewes, the one which had prompted us to bring them into the stables, was obviously going into labour. She at least had the courtesy to show all the expected signs. I closed over the stable door and resolved to check how things were going in about half an hour. This was the ewe which took about 48 hours from start to finish last year, so we were prepared for a long ride.
When I returned to the stables, lamb number one had already been born and was being licked dry!
I suspected there may be another one waiting to come out too, so observed for a while and then let be.
Shetlands don't give birth to twins as regularly as commercial breeds, but this ewe had twins last year and the grazing this year has been good. So good in fact that the Shetlands have survived purely on the grass this year, supplemented only with a few beet nuts I was given for free. Normally this would be unthinkable, but these are native sheep (at least to Shetland) and it has been quite an exceptional non -winter. At the vets last week (look out for Hot-X-Bun-Gate) I was told how so many people's ewes this year are overconditioned and have been having three or even four lambs which have come out too big and caused problems.
It's been a busy day. Photos will be added later.
ed. now added, but I'm still very busy and have had next to no sleep (read my next blog post) so I've just dropped them fairly randomly into the middle of the document!
We checked that the first lamb was up and trying to feed, then let be again. Quarter of an hour later I was busy in the veg plot when Sue came through looking happy. "Another one?" I enquired. "Another two!" came the reply.
Now that's not ideal. A sheep has two teats for a reason and three lambs for one sheep is pushing it a bit. I knew that it is common practice to take one of the lambs and try to get it onto another ewe - otherwise it's a case of bottle feeding. This would be cute but not a great option once we were back at work.
So a quick call to our helpful vets and we were advised to take one of the lambs and smear it all over with its own afterbirth before presenting it to the ewe which had earlier given birth to just the one lamb. We rushed out to the stables just as mum was clearing away the various residues of birth - it's amazing how they do this by instinct. I managed to save a bit from her and set about uncleaning the little lamb. I gently held it beside it's adoptive mum and after just a few seconds she started licking it. Just a couple of minutes later and it was suckling from her. It's a good job sheep can't count to three!
So that was that. Four lambs in one eventful day. In between I'd picked my car up from the garage (the brakes had seized and it had been away for two nights), sold 10 goose eggs and a couple of turkey eggs and seen a hen harrier pass through the garden, the first for a couple of years.
Or so we thought. For it was then that ewe number three started circling restlessly, jaw stretching and pawing at the straw - all signs of first labour. This however would be a first birth for her and so, judging by last year, could take quite some time. As I sit here typing she has stopped showing any signs and the plan is to go out about midnight and then early in the morning. We gain a little more experience each year, but I still don't feel confident.
As for ewe number four, I'm not even sure she's pregnant. If she is, it's definitely not twins and they're not imminent (famous last words). If she's not, it could be bad news for her future prospects.