We are coming to the end of what is arguably the most joyful time of year: lambing season. Even though I am not involved in farming myself, every year when I see the first little lamb out in the field, I smile. It’s impossible not to really! For people like me, lambs are a sign of Spring. A sign that we might soon be able to put our wellies away, with longer days in the sunshine ahead. For sheep farmers, it is a challenging and tiring period, yet still rewarding nonetheless.
For this feature of ‘What Does the Vet Say?’, I spoke to Tom and Ashley, who both work for a Mixed Veterinary Practice in Somerset, asking questions about lambing that will benefit less experienced sheep farmers and old-timers alike. From advice for people getting started to an insight into the role of the vet, Tom and Ashley have kindly shared their knowledge with us.
Firstly let me introduce them…
Name: Tom White BVMS MRCVS
Qualifications: Farm Vet and farmer’s son
Years of lambing experience: 25+ having been left in the lambing shed in the pram on the farm at home as a baby! Also 6 years of contract night lambing for farms elsewhere.
Name: Ashley Stewart BVetMed MRCVS
Qualifications: Large and Farm Animal Vet
Years of lambing experience: 14 years altogether!
Let the learning begin…
Some of our members are looking to take sheep farming from a hobby into a business. Do you have any advice for people starting their own flock and the first year of lambing?
TOM: The National Sheep Association (NSA) have a guideline of 6-10 sheep per acre depending on sheep breed and grass growth but you’ll need to remember that pasture needs resting through the winter to ensure spring growth. There is increasing engagement from arable farmers looking for sheep to run on their cropland through the winter.
ASHLEY: It’s also important to bear in mind that as lambs grow and begin to graze you will need to account for the extra space required.
ASHLEY: There has been an interesting trend towards self-shearing sheep (notably Easy Care or Wiltshire Horn) in the last few years. They tend to shed their winter coat over the spring and summer, then regrow it again in the autumn. This can help to relieve the stress of shearing for first-time smallholders. In terms of sheep that are easy to look after, have nice lambs, and are relatively docile, you can’t go wrong with a Texel or Charolais Cross.
TOM: Plenty of people are equally interested in sheep for their wool with specialist breeds like the Devon and Cornwall Longwool, or Wensleydale, famed for the length of staple and lustre of their wool. There’s a huge range of breeds with different benefits, the NSA is a great port of call for learning more about breeds.
Who to seek out for help?
TOM: Seeking advice from local farmers, your vet, and organisations like the NSA are all great places to start. There are plenty of books out there with advice on sheep farming. Attending agricultural shows, when the world allows, like NSA Sheep South West (where breed societies are often present) is another great place to learn and gather information.
ASHLEY: The best people to contact for help and advice in difficulty is your vet, but sheep breed societies and NADIS are also excellent points of contact.
Could you please share some wisdom for people who are new to lambing?
TOM: Expect late nights and early mornings! It’s a steep learning curve with plenty of jobs like delivering lambs, bottle feeding and stomach tubing that aren’t found in many other walks of life. I would highly recommend getting lambing experience on other farms before taking sheep on yourself else it could be a make it an experience which takes the joy out of one of the best times of the year!
ASHLEY: Lambing is actually one of my favourite times of year, although we do hear of many people finding it difficult, especially if their lambing period is quite prolonged. The vast majority of ewes who have lambed before should have no problems, however it’s always sensible to closely monitor first-timers.
What is easy to be caught out by?
ASHLEY: The biggest issue that new holders experience is knowing when to intervene; too early and you may damage the ewe, but even a little bit too late and the consequences can be severe for both the ewe and her lambs. The most common thing that I find with smallholders is that they are more than happy to have a go, however, it is very easy to get flustered. Too often I attend to find someone who has been pulling at a back leg and a front leg. The best advice I can give is to take your time, stay calm, and think about the anatomy.
TOM: I would also say intervening too early. The whole process of giving birth can take a number of hours in sheep and the vast majority will have their lambs themselves without any assistance required. Intervening too early can lead to the ewe failing to mother the lamb so often a hands-off approach is best.
At what point should the vet be called?
ASHLEY: Every lamb has a head and two front legs, once you have these you should be able to lamb most difficult ewes, unless the lamb is oversized. If you have been trying for over 20 minutes, or there is frank blood present then you should call a vet.
TOM: If the lamb’s head keeps flicking back rather than passing through the pelvis and it feels big, you’ll want to call your vet as it’s likely caesarean time! Also, any lamb that fails to enough colostrum in the first few hours is much more susceptible to infections like joint ill and watery mouth. Ensuring newborns have full bellies and clean, dry pens is crucial.
What should be in the farmer’s lambing kit?
When should the farmer intervene?
If no lambs have been born within one hour of appearance of the ewe’s water bag or a ewe has seemingly made no progress over a number of hours and has ‘given up’, it’ll likely warrant an intervention. If the lamb is being born head first or backwards these are also deliveries that require help to rearrange the lamb or some extra pulling.
What percentage of ewes require intervention?
TOM: Not as many as you might think, patience is key! I contract lamb at a farm that lambs 2500 ewes in three weeks, which equates to about 100 in a 24-hour period. Of this, only 2-3 ewes would require genuine assistance in a 24-hour period.
ASHLEY: This should be expected to be higher in first time lambers and some double-muscled breeds.
What is the most common outcome, singles, twins, or triplets?
TOM: It’s very breed dependent. With hill breeds, like the Scottish Blackface, commonly delivering a single but more prolific breeds often scan at 200% + meaning they often deliver twins, triplets, and even quadruplets.
ASHLEY: I would say twins are more common than singles and triplets, although quadruplets or quintuplets are not unheard of. Farmers should always check after delivery of the last lamb to make sure no further lambs are waiting for a bit of assistance to be delivered.
Could you outline the role of the vet in the lambing process?
TOM: In general, advisory because success with lambing is dependent on the care of the ewe throughout the rest of the year. During lambing, vets are on call for any tricky deliveries encountered or for caesareans that are just too big to fit!
ASHLEY: Usually the vet gets phoned as an emergency. On arrival, we will clean and disinfect, then perform a vaginal examination after application of lubricant. If we feel that the lamb can be delivered vaginally then we will attempt to do so. If we don’t feel that the lamb can be successfully delivered, we will opt to perform a cesarean. Most ewes recover very well from this procedure.
Farmers are able to handle quite a bit on their own, as the vet, what do you most frequently get called to deal with?
ASHLEY: Most frequently I would say we get called for either a large lamb with a head-first delivery or twins that both trying to come at the same time. After a bit of limb reordering, both of these deliveries can be resolved.
TOM: Also, occasionally casting broken legs in lambs.
Do you have a memorable lambing moment you could share?
TOM: There aren’t many individual memorable moments as they tend to blend into one! I can say, however, that having used all of my Easter holidays during my five years at vet school to go contract lambing and most of my evenings after work spent in the lambing shed at home, it’s a very enjoyable time of year to be involved with! There aren’t many better sights than seeing healthy newborn lambs turned out to fresh spring grass or playing in the sunshine!
ASHLEY: Definitely the time I delivered quadruplets. I delivered one huge lamb, went to check afterward, felt another set of legs and pulled out another smaller lamb. Checking again, I was surprised by another set of small feet and delivered the third lamb. I washed my hands off and packed up my gear, but a nagging feeling kept me from leaving. I stuck my hand in one more time and lo and behold felt some tiny little feet wriggling away. All four lambs and the ewe survived, though one of the quadruplets was given to another ewe with one a single lamb. Sharing is caring!
We thank Tom and Ashley for their contribution during this busy time of year! If you think of anything you would like to “Ask the Vet” for future articles, please contact @ladiescountrysidecommunity or @thecountrysidecorner.
Regional Reporter - South West England
A motto I live by is “if it makes your heart happy, follow it and the right doors for you will open”. I grew up on the Somerset Levels and am currently studying my final year of Hospitality Management at the University of Plymouth. After specialising in the Cruise Industry and spending 7 months sailing around the world, I simply confirmed that the British countryside is where my heart lies. Like many, my love of the countryside runs deep. I spend as much of my free time possible riding, sailing, baking or exploring with my dog in tow and I love nothing more than a countryside picnic…except maybe a cosy pub dinner! To me, hospitality is about having something you’re proud of and wanting to share it; a purpose I see mirrored in the objectives of the Ladies Countryside Community and I’m excited to get stuck in! Take a look at my blog @thecountrysidecorner