Spring is a significant time in the farming calendar, as farmers get ready to care for more than 15 million ewes preparing to give birth. But what’s actually involved in this crucial part of the farming calendar? Find out what sheep farmers have to do to get it right.
When is lambing time?
Lambing can start as early as December in some parts of the country but the majority of farmers will begin in early spring. The sight of lambs scattering the fields is well known as a welcome sight, representing new beginnings and the end of a long winter.
When it comes to delivery, lots of ewes will deliver their offspring unassisted out in the field. But farmers are on hand night and day to keep a close eye in case there are any problems. Some ewes, especially first time mums, will be brought into the lambing shed to give birth in case they need a helping hand.
How many lambs are born?
The number of lambs born by each ewe varies from breed to breed. First time mums are more likely to give birth to one lamb, although twins are not uncommon. There are some breeds of sheep that average more than two lambs per litter.
But while lambing is an incredibly intense time in farming, the work starts well in advance. To ensure that their flock will cope with particular types of terrain or climate, or can produce a specific end product, British farmers have to carefully examine the characteristics of ewes and rams when preparing the breeding process, adding ‘genetic expertise’ to their broad list of skills.
There’s nothing quite like the magic of lambing, making it the ideal way to introduce children to farming and the countryside.
You’ll find organised lambing live events on at farms up and down the country, so pull on your wellies and get the family together for a truly unique day out – and an experience you’ll never forget!
Ewes and rams mate in a process called tupping which takes places in the autumn time. But even before the rams are put to the ewes, lots of farmers are donning their match maker hats to carefully pair their ewes and rams to create the best offspring. Farmers will use several rams to cover their flock - usually a ratio of 1 ram: 40-60 ewes. Using multiple rams increases the chance of ewes being covered by the rams within their fertile period and falling pregnant.
Ewes are only in season once per year – so unlike other animals that become fertile multiple times a year, there is a short time period for them to fall pregnant. There are expectations for breeds like the Polled Dorset who can get pregnant all year round. Ultimately this is the reason that lambs being born is so intrinsically linked with spring and Easter time. Ewes will normally be 2 years old before they become a breeding sheep.
Like humans, ewes are scanned on farm to find out how many lambs they are carrying. The ideal number of lambs for a ewe to have differs depending on the farming system. Hill farms prefer ewes to have just one lamb, while sheep in the lowland strive to have twins. It’s not uncommon for ewe’s to have triplets, quads, or even quintuplets.
Pregnant ewes are often split up into groups at this stage so their feeding and nutrition can be carefully managed. A ewe carrying one lamb doesn’t need the same amount of food as one carrying triplets!
Lambs are born around 145 days (or about 4.5 months) after the ewe falls pregnant. Lambing can start as early as December and go on to as late as June. Specialist breeds will lamb all year round, satisfying demand for the Christmas and Easter trade.
Depending on the type of farm and where it is, lambing can take place either indoors or outdoors. Often first-time mums will be brought inside to lamb so farmers can keep a close eye on them and give them a hand if needs be. This means that during lambing a farmer will be on hand all through the day and night to make sure things go smoothly.
Once the lamb is born, it’s important its gets up on its feet quickly and latches to the ewes teat to get the colostrum (first milk) which is packed with nutrients and antibodies. If this doesn’t happen within the first few hours, the farmer will collect the colostrum from the mother and feed it directly to the lamb using a tube.
Unfortunately lambing is a difficult time and not all ewes and lambs will survive, even in the best system. Farmers will pair up orphan lambs with other ewes for adoption. This happens in cases where the mother is unable to look after one of its lambs due to a multiple birth (triplets or quads), or if the ewe or lamb dies.
There are a few ways adoption can take place. Wet adoption is where the birthing fluid from a new born lamb is transferred to the adoptive lamb so the ewe thinks it is her own. Dry adoption happens when a lamb has died. Skin is taken from the dead lamb and tied to the orphan so the adoptive mother will recognise the scent and take it as her own. Eventually the skin will fall off by which time the lamb and mother will have bonded.
Once the farmer is happy that the lamb is feeding well they’ll go out into the field which can be like a crèche with lots of other ewes and lambs running around. The ewes can graze on the fresh spring grass which helps them produce lots of milk for their hungry and growing lamb(s), and can be supplemented with a sheep feed to make sure the milk is plentiful. Lambs might also be given special food called creep. It’s put in lamb feeders which are too small for the mothers to get their nose into!
Lambs are fitted with identification ear tags which will stay on for the rest of their life. The lambs are normally weaned from their mothers between 2-4 months old when they will either go on to be breeding sheep (ewes or rams), or they’ll be reared for meat. The ewes then have a few months to get into top condition, ready for Autumn tupping when the process starts all over again.