I am coaching a couple of start ups with sheep, something that would have been great if I had when I started. I jumped in with both feet, as usual and learned quickly as I went along. Sheep were pretty easy compared to other animals. The whole thing about breeding and then pregnancy and delivery was a mystery to me. I knew the ram had to do his thing and then we had to wait and poof, the lambs were born, but it wasn't that easy.
The day the ram goes in with the ewes, he is busy, but being busy does not mean the ewes are suddenly pregnant. He might just be trying to breed and the ewes may be running from him at the last minute so unless breeding is actually observed, it can or not happen. This year the ewes are very spread out in their deliveries. The first ram that went in, the Romney was not mature enough and did nothing. He did enjoy being with the ewes and loved to eat and socialize with them, but showed little interest in breeding. The Babydoll rams took their time too, for some reason. I don't think the ewes were being very cooperative. Then there was the oops early breeding of the Shetland lamb that got 5 ewes who gave birth in February during the warm snap.
But sheep are quite predictable. Once bred they show no interest in being around the ram. Too bad women do not have that immediate sense of being pregnant. Then all those pregnancy tests would be unnecessary! The gestation is only 5 months, give or take some days for certain breeds. Those carrying twins may give birth a few days earlier too.
When the ewe is very near to delivery, the lamb drops in the belly from being carried high in the abdomen, which causes the barrel look. Once the lamb drops that barrel look is way more rounded. This is pretty evident in the Cotswold girl's photos. She has a couple of days yet, but the lamb has already moved into the birth position.
Primitive sheep seldom deliver in the dark. That is nature's way of keeping the babies safe, so the ewe can see what is going on around her. She becomes very loving and may bite at her tummy as the baby has moved into position. She also begins to talk to the baby with soft calls. As soon as the baby is born, it can recognize its mother by the call. Modern sheep that are housed in well lit barns may lamb anytime during the night. In the five years I have had sheep, I do not recall any births in the middle of the night except one that started in the evening and was problematic and finally at 3 am was delivered with much stress and assistance from me and the vet. Generally my practice is hands off and let the mother do what is natural for her. I intervene if she is having trouble, if I do not see the normal presentation of two little hooves and a nose, or if she is crying for some time and obviously under duress.
When the lamb is born, the ewe only takes a moment to gather her senses and then starts to lick the baby clean. Primitive sheep may eat the placenta, a way of not attracting predators and even clean up the birth fluids as well as they can. They will move from the birthing place, usually a place where there is a solid wall behind her and she can watch the front. My sheep usually give birth outside in the open, though they have three shelters to choose from. The Blue Faced Leicester sheep and their crosses will deliver in a shelter.
The mother sheep will push the lamb towards her udder encouraging the baby to suck as soon as he can stand or even before. I have seen lambs in position who are yet unable to stand and are nursing on their knees. That first drink of colostrum, or rich mother's milk, is necessary to give the baby the strength to stand and walk and to warm up. The colostrum also provides antibodies for the baby's immune system.
I have been very fortunate on the farm with the babies born here. Very few have been lost. One that was breach died the day after birth likely from fluid in the lungs. Most are vigorous and healthy and do not require shots to get them going. It never gets dull to watch new life come into the world and it is such a privilege to be the shepherd and care for these beautiful creatures. I am truly blessed here on the Fat Ewe Farm. You should come down and visit the babies when you can. Such joy, there is here and such peace. Thank you or should I say thank ewes!