March • April • May

Working Newborn Soay Lambs

Calm Soay ewe and her lamb with shepherd Depending on your lambing set-up – out in the field, in an outdoor enclosure, in a barn or shed – and your views about the appropriate level of intervention and husbandry, you may want to take some, all, or none of the steps described below with your new lambs. If nothing else, do sterilize the stump of the lamb's umbilical cord for really basic protection against infection.

Setting the stage

It helps to jug them Once a lamb is on the ground, we try to jug it with its mom as soon as we discover the lamb, and then work each newborn lamb within 4-6 hours of its birth, preferably as soon as we can after the lamb has had its all-important first meal of colostrum-laden milk. By then, the ewe generally has relaxed a little, knowing she has done her two essential jobs, delivering the lamb safely and getting it directed back to her udder for nourishment. Often we work a lamb before the ewe has shed her placenta, but that doesn't matter at all to working her. We do have to be careful not to break off the placenta or, worse yet, tug at it or do anything to disrupt whatever schedule the ewe's body has for expelling it.

Note: If the lamb has not nursed within the first hour after birth and is not showing signs of getting up to nurse (i.e., not attempting to stand, shivering, generally not acting responsive), we take its temperature and decide whether to intervene to try to jump-start nursing.

There are pros and cons to jugging, since it is basically interfering with the early minutes of the lamb's birth, when the ewe is trying to get it cleaned off and eating. But on balance, we find the advantages win out, primarily because it gives the ewe and lamb a cleaner, private small area where they have no choice but to bond immediately and they can more about jugging ► go about their ancient rituals with no possibility of injury or mishap from the other adult sheep. In this photo, Steve lures Mama into a jug with her squalling twins.

Work quietly To work the lamb, Steve quietly enters the jug, bringing with him only the camp stool. The Lamb Kit rests on the side wall of the jug, or the panel, or anywhere close by but up off the ground. Steve sits down, picks up the lamb, and waits a couple of minutes while more about Lamb Kits ► mama ewe gets accustomed to sharing her lamb.

The goal is to do everything calmly. As soon as Steve upends the lamb, we learn its gender. When Priscilla is around, she runs the portable database (i.e., the lamb card), entering what "lambing" it is, date and estimated more about Lamb Cards ► time of birth, date of working, gender, etc. Even before we start working the lamb, we confirm that we have the right lamb card by checking the ewe's ear tag number against the number printed on her lambing card.

Taking the lamb's temperature

Next we take the lamb's temperature. A little KY or vaseline on the tip of the thermometer will be appreciated by the lamb, whose rectal skin is of course very tender just after birth. We've found the easiest way to do this is to fill a needle-less 6cc syringe with some KY and keep this homemade applicator in the Lamb Kit. It is not necessary to take a More about temperature as a diagnostic tool ► healthy lamb's temperature, but we routinely check just to be sure we are not missing an early problem. The temperature gets recorded on the lamb card.

While you're dealing with the wrong end of the lamb, smear a finger-load of vaseline around its rear and the underside of the tail, paying particular attention to any long fleece in the area. This will help prevent gobs of sticky baby feces from clumping up in a hard wad, plugging up the lamb's anus. If the lamb becomes plugged – this is called “pinning” – you must remove the plug, as this is a life-threatening situation. Removal of these cement-like globs stuck on the lamb's wool is equally unpleasant for you and the lamb. A little dab of vaseline pretty much avoids the problem.

Identifying the lamb

Next Steve puts in the baby ear tag, two little bitty pieces of green plastic stamped with a number and applied with a task-specific tool that looks like a paper punch. Baby tags allow us to identify our lambs immediately, preventing any possibility of mixup. They are available from the in the U.K. A dab of KY on the tip of the ear tag protrusion makes it slide in more easily and allows us to rotate the tag a couple of times to make sure it's not pinching and that no wool is caught in the hole.

Which ear? By informal convention, Soay rams have adult Scrapie tags in their right ears, so a baby ram's tag goes in his left ear and will stay there even after we install his adult tag (in his right ear) when he gets his first tetanus shot at 5 to 7 weeks. Ewes are, of course, just the opposite – baby tags in right ear, adult tags in left ear. The baby ear tag number gets dutifully recorded on the lamb card.

Injections for the lamb

Each lamb gets two shots: 0.25cc of BO-SE, a mixture of Selenium and Vitamin E, and 0.25cc of Vitamins A & D. more about the need
for selenium ►
The dosages are appropriate for a tiny Soay lamb weighing as little as three pounds. Why do we give these shots? Because our sheep veterinarian recommended that we do so as a precaution. Selenium is very deficient in our area, and the three vitamins simply give the lamb a leg up on life. We use a 20x1/2" needle in a 1 cc tuberculin syringe. We give the injection on the neck just in front of the shoulder. This location is easy to get to when the lamb is lying on Steve's lap, and there is usually a little loose skin in the area. We have found that the skin on the side of the chest behind the foreleg is very thin and tight, making that area a difficult one for subcutaneous injections.

Weighing the lamb

Then into the sling goes the lamb. We use a Rapala fish scale, 50-pound capacity, from a local sporting goods store. The sling came from Premier. Healthy Soay lambs can weigh anywhere from about 2 1/2 pounds at the low end all the way up to 9 pounds. Our average lamb weight has edged up over the years. We are pretty sure the differences are explained by what we have learned about gestating ewe nutrition and better control of internal parasites and coccidia. To put your lamb size in perspective, a five-pound lamb weighs the same as a bag of sugar. These sheep really are quite small!

Sterilizing the umbilical cord

The only part of the entire working process that sometimes upsets the lamb is sterilizing its umbilical cord with iodine. It stings, so unless the cord has completely dried out, the lamb will squirm and protest.

Dousing a newborn lamb's umbilical cord in iodine as soon as possible after birth is an inexpensive way to guard against infection. Later when our lambs go back out into the pasture, they have to fend for themselves as far as scrapes and cuts go and frankly, the Maternity Ward is pretty cruddy during rainy season. It is not cost-effective to treat sheep for every little cut and problem, but at the outset, when the raw cord and navel are exposed and the lamb is lying down all the time, it just makes sense to apply iodine.

Use strong iodine We strongly recommend iodine that is much stronger than the 1% solution you will find on display at grocery stores and pharmacies. This is necessary for the dousing to be effective in the unavoidably unsanitary conditions of a lambing area. We use a product called Triodine-7, which is a mixture of several chemical forms of iodine that add up to a strength equivalent to 7%. This or something similar will be available from your farm store.

Applicators For several years we have used an applicator called in the catalogs a "teat dipper." It works pretty well, can be made to stay straight up and not spill, and will get the job done. Just about every sheep supplier offers teat dippers. The only problem with them is that they are way much larger than necessary. They were designed to sanitize the teats of dairy cattle. Recently, we have glued together a smaller version out of PVC pipe fittings; it works really well.

Whatever kind of applicator you use, start by holding the lamb right side up, with the applicator opening under its belly, and gather up the umbilical cord into the opening of the applicator so the full length of the cord will get drenched with iodine. Place the opening of the applicator firmly against the lamb's belly and then turn the lamb over so the iodine gets on the navel as well as the cord. Count to 3, turn the lamb right side up, and slowly take the applicator off the cord. If your aim is good and your hand steady, all the iodine will drain back into the applicator, where it stays put until time to disinfect the next lamb. The iodine is completely reusable.

Be careful with males If you are working a ram lamb, be careful to capture only the cord in the dipper or you will get iodine on his little penis and you will have a seriously wriggling and even more seriously unhappy lamb on your hands.

We always treat the umbilical cord last thing, and immediately return the lamb to the care of its mother. You do not want to handle a lamb whose belly is wet with iodine!

In case of a mess A note about (inevitable) iodine stains. If you spill on your hands, it will sting, but will come right off with rubbing alcohol if applied promptly. As for stains on clothing, those seem to come off just fine in the laundry without any special treatments, much to our surprise and pleasure.

Injections for the mother

We take one final precaution before we retire and leave the lamb and ewe to continue bonding. Again at the recommendation of our veterinarian, we give a 1cc shot of BoSe to the new mama, who may not have kept up with her mineral consumption with the in utero lamb filching it from her. We use a 3cc syringe and a 20x1" needle. Pressing the ewe to your chest as Steve is doing in this picture eliminates the need to plop the ewe on her rear, the conventional way of working a sheep, when her vulva and her udder are still very tender and vulnerable.