One thing you realise during lambing is that not all mothers are created equal. With sheep you get all sorts. For an animal that was supposedly bred to enhance the maternal instinct, it might be time to up the stakes and see if a spot of genetic modification might not speed the job.
Breed seems to have something to do with the maternal instinct. The fell breeds seem to have it in spades. So most breeding sheep are a crossbreed, often with a fell sheep as their mother, and a lowland breed as a father. This means that the offspring should get size and milkiness from the father and toughness and the maternal instinct from the mother. This in theory produces the best of both worlds, and this crossbreed is normally known as ‘The Mule.’
The trouble is that this sort of breeding programme demands that most sheep farmers buy in all their replacements, as few have land suitable for fell sheep. So farmers will have to buy in their Mules. A lot of farmers will buy in some Mules, but will also keep a few useful looking ewe lambs from last year’s crop. So the lowland side of the breeding starts to take over, and perhaps they’re not as strongly maternal as their mothers. But to be fair to them, they can be more docile and produce bigger lambs who grow faster.
Note these are very general traits and individual ewes will vary widely. But across a thousand ewes and several generations the traits can become more noticeable.
One example is what happens when the dog appears. Most ewes will stamp a front foot at it, and perhaps even make a token charge it if it comes too near. This is just to let the dog know that there are rules and limits. A big Swaledale ewe (a fell breed with a fine set of horns) will just stand there and stare the dog out. “Come on dog if you think you’re hard enough.” Most dogs with any sheep experience will remember a previous appointment at this point and slink quietly off. They know they’re dealing with a ewe who will charge, and will happily convert the charge into a hot pursuit!
So at one extreme you have the sheep who are really good mums. The Leicester who had quads, which she produced without assistance, is an exemplar. Once she’d got over the initial shock, she took to them, licked them down, made sure they were fed and didn’t sit on them. We took one of her lambs to put on another ewe who’d lost hers, and the Leicester is still feeding three and feeding them well.
The good mums are a pleasure to work with. When they’ve lambed they’re easy to move. You pick up the lambs and the ewe follows behind you, her nose never more than six inches from her lambs.
You can get those who can be ‘over maternal.’ This is the ewe who is so keen on having lambs she steals them from other sheep even when she hasn’t lambed herself. These can be a real pain in the proverbial. A ewe has just lambed and you’re trying to quietly manoeuvre her into a separate pen so she can lick them down, feed them and bond with them away from the hurly burly. As you do this some idiot keeps charging in and tries to push the other ewe out! She is often the target of harsh language and even uncharitable comments. Still, to be fair, when she finally does get round to lambing she can normally be trusted to be a good mum, and with lambs of her own she doesn’t seem to feel the urge to steal more.
Then you get those who are just thick. You pick up the lambs and walk backwards so that she can always see them. They’re bleating at her. She follows a few reluctant steps and then decides it’s a con and runs back to wherever it was she lambed. So you go back with the lambs, put them in front of her, and she discovers them. All is sweetness and light. You pick them up because she’s lambed in the middle of the yard in the pouring rain and the lambs need to be inside. The minute you pick them up, they become invisible and she charges off somewhere to try and find them. Last year I had one ewe like this who lambed outside. This means lifting the lambs into the quad trailer. The ewe follows them in and I shut the trailer gate behind her and fetch her home rejoicing.
In the case of one bluidy auld witch I finally had to fetch the lambs home and put them under the heat lamb. Then I went back, fetched in all sixty ewes as it was the only way I’d get the new lambed ewe inside. Once they were in the lambing shed I could finally catch mum and stick her in a single pen. Then I let the others back out and brought the erring mum her lambs back. She took to them immediately but frankly it had taken nearly an hour to do a job that should take ten minutes at the most.
Then you have hoggs and shearlings. Hoggs are about a year old when they have their first lamb, shearlings are about two years old. (They’ve been sheared, hence the name.) You’re always careful about putting hoggs in with the tup. You want to make sure they hogg is big enough. Obviously in nature, nobody is that careful. Anything female that comes in season will get tupped. So in a wild situation you’ll lose a lot of young females who’re too small to lamb.
The problem with these young sheep is that they have the instincts but it’s as if they’ve never been activated. So they fire up in a most haphazard manner. This morning I checked the lambing shed at 5:30am, nothing was happening. At 7am when we went in, one hogg had produced twin lambs, licked them down and was feeding them. A couple of hours later she was happy enough to follow them out of the lambing shed across to the pens where we’d let her stay and bond with them for a few days.
Yet I’ve seen hoggs that lambed, took one look at what they’d produced and just abandoned it. If you get the young ewe and lamb into a small pen where mum cannot avoid the lamb, they’ll normally get over their initial panic and their instincts will kick in.
Still lambing hoggs is a somewhat uncertain process. To them everything is new and at times quite interesting. So don’t be surprised to find the young mum climbing half way up her pen gate, just to get a better view of what’s going on.