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Extract from Home Farm Magazine

No 89 Aug/Sept 1990           Copyright   Pam Shaw

Fostering On by Pam Shaw

What follows is really a continuation of my last article. Extra lambs are the credit side of lambing - the debit being the occasional lamb born dead or dying soon after. No ewe should be left without a lamb to rear so a spare lamb is fostered on. Big farms use lamb adopters; specially constructed pens which hold the ewe's head in a yoke so that she cannot turn to sniff the fostered lamb. Food and water are placed in front of her and the idea is that in twenty four hours the new lamb will smell sufficiently of her own milk to be accepted as her own. This method is often used for 'twinning on' a second lamb onto a ewe that has had a single, the two lambs having one side each in the adopter. Although this is a very popular system, there are drawbacks. A single lamb is usually bigger and stronger than a twin or triplet. The resulting pair will either be unbalanced or the ewe will have an extremely large pair of lambs to raise. If there has been a dead twin, I prefer the following method, which works with the ewe rather than against her natural instincts.


Strength of the maternal instinct
Hill ewes make excellent mothers. In harsh conditions their lamb's survival will depend on the strength of their maternal instinct. They do not like to be constrained, to have their heads held in a yoke, or to be handled in any way. It is easier to work with their desire for a iamb and let them know from the start that the lamb is their own.

If a lamb is still born or is a dead 'hung' lamb (ie. partly born but caught at the shoulders) and someone is present at the birth, it is possible to quickly substitute another live lamb from behind while the ewe is still lying down. As long as this lamb is fairly new-born and is well covered in its adoptive mother's birth fluids, there is a fair chance of success without having to skin the dead lamb as a foster-coat.

The idea of skinning a dead lamb and putting it on a live one is not very appealing but in this case the end justifies the means. The ewe will (almost always) desperately want a lamb; the lamb benefits from the undivided attention of the ewe instead of being one of triplets at a milk bar for two, or a twin where there is not enough milk to go round. The in between bit is surprisingly easy. The dead lamb should be as fresh as possible, preferably warm, but definitely dead. The worst to skin are lambs that have been drowned or dropped in mud. The skinning technique is similar to that of a rabbit; an opening from the throat, all the way down and then peel off. Some people take the skin off like a jacket with holes for the legs and neck. I have found such a skin rarely fits the live lamb so I prefer to remove the skin as a flat piece and  tie it discreetly at the neck and under the belly.


In spite of the well-worn myth, sheep are not stupid. Dangling bits of string, a lamb that is a completely different colour, or a much older than new-born lamb will arouse a ewe's suspicions, and could lead to a failed adoption. I try to choose, the lamb carefully too, matching personalities. A placid ewe will not be happy I with a madcap lamb. Similarly, a ewe that is always on the move will soon get fed up with a lamb that is quiet and lazy.


Care should be taken in skinning the dead lamb to keep the navel and tail on the skin since these are the two areas' which will be immediately sniffed and checked. The head is another problem area. I smear the top of the foster lamb's head liberally with birth fluids, blood or, failing all else, the ewe's own dung. A word about blood; great care must be taken when skinning not to release any internal blood from the dead lamb over the skin. This seems to make a ewe suspicious too.

Do not leave the ewe long without a lamb. It is better to leave her with a dead lamb than no lamb at all. When the foster lamb is ready in its new coat, introduce it straight into suck without letting the ewe smell it. Put yourself between the lamb and her head. Once the new lamb is suckling (be sure to 'clear' the teats of their wax protection by a first squeeze), let the ewe sniff the lamb's 'tail' (ie the skin's tail).


An adoption pen
If all goes well mother and baby could be left together, but I prefer to be absolutely certain. Given the usual chaotic conditions at lambing time, I like to be sure the lamb is safe without having to check it constantly. A ewe that decides that she doesn't want a lamb could quite easily kill it. 1 make a pen within a pen. My adoption pens are normal heat-lamp pens (see earlier article) with the light suspended over one corner that is shut off with another hurdle placed diagonally. After the foster lamb has had a good suckle, it is placed under the heat- lamp in this small pen of its own where it will usually go to sleep. The mother can see it, hear it and just sniff the skin but she cannot really carry out a thorough investigation. This 'nearly but not quite' situation stimulates the ewe's maternal instinct and makes her want the lamb even more. It also gives her time to get used to the new lamb's cry and identify it as her own. This will bring the milk on her and make her keen to let the lamb have its next feed. It also prevents the lamb from overfeeding especially if it is past the colostrum stage. Too much colostrum will upset an older lamb's stomach. I often milk off some to give to other new-born lambs that need it.

A dog
There are other ways to stimulate the maternal instinct; the best being a dog. Only our old dog is allowed in the lambing pens but she knows her job well. By sitting her outside the adoption pen the ewe's natural protective feelings cause her to stand over her foster lamb and help reinforce the mother-child bond.

With a Shetland ewe you can often forget about the skin and just use a dog. In fact Shetlands will take a lamb in the field within a few hours of birth with very little encouragement. This can have a downside. One of my old Shetland ewes once collected herself triplets. By the time I had sorted it out the real mother did not want her lamb back. Another Shetland would thieve any newborn lamb and had to be removed from the lambing field permanently until she finally produced her own lamb weeks later.

But back to the ewe in the adoption pen. The milk takes four hours to pass through the lamb; but most people reckon on twenty-four hours for an adoption. By night-time the foster lamb should be out of his wee pen and with his new mother although still wearing his skin. I rarely leave the skin on longer than a day although some people do. Sometimes I cut the 'coat' down to a 'jacket'. Once the a bond has been formed it will not be broken. How long one should keep on trying is a matter for debate and depends on your perseverance. It is possible to get a ewe to take a lamb after a week, maybe even longer, although a week is my limit. There can be problems; wet or dirty skins, skins too large or (more usually) too small, or ewes that do not particularly want a lamb (for example, shearlings or canny old ewes). One of the most irritating problems is trying to adopt a lamb that has been a 'pet' for a while. We have, on occasion, resorted to suspending a lamb bottle teat from the ewe's teat to encourage the appropriate suckling response. It is also much harder to adopt lambs onto ewes that have lost lambs that were a few days or weeks old. Some people will not even bother but it can work given the right kind of ewes Which kind? Well, a ewe that will stand over her dead lamb, that is carrying a lot; of milk and that is easy to work with is a good bet. If the lamb died from an infectious disease it is not worth the risk of using a skin. In that case I would suckle on a pet lamb (there is usually one that will suckle anything that moves) for a few days until the ewe dries off.

Most of the above applies to cows and calves, except that in my experience cows do not seem to have such an overriding maternal urge. Also, they are bigger and therefore harder to work with unless very tame. Do not use a dog if you value your dog.

Fostering products
There are products on the market to help with fostering on. You can buy a spray that interferes with the ewe's sense of smell or a stockinette fostercoat that can transfer the ewe's smell from her own lamb to a fostered lamb for 'twinning on'. I do not like the spray. A confused ewe is an unhappy one. Anyway, the smell is awful. I have not tried the fostercoat, but the idea seems useful.

One of the nicest things about fostering on is walking the fields in the summer and seeing lamb and ewe grazing side by side contentedly, and thinking to yourself, 'I did that'. Or watching a Shetland teach her adopted lamb to go from field to field the Shetland way - through the fences. It can brighten a dull day.


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