I can vouch for that last statement. There is nothing more piercing than the sound of a hungry lamb.
We have been lucky enough to hand rear our own lambs and I am also midway through the process of helping a friend do the same too. In the short space of five months, I have learnt a fair bit about hand-rearing orphan lambs so thought it was a lovely subject to write a little blog on for anyone wondering or thinking about doing.
Ok so lambs become orphans for various reasons:
- They are one of a triplet so there is a lack of milk for them
- Mum dies in labour or gets sick afterwards and has to be put down
- Mum has no milk so can’t feed them
Whatever reason it’s not a great start in life for them. The colostrum which is the first milk the lambs will get from their mother is absolutely KEY for their survival. It helps to form their immune system, give them a boost in the first 24 hours of life and is basically (much like most species) liquid gold.
A lot of orphan lambs miss out on the colostrum if mum dies/ is nowhere to be seen or the two stronger siblings get there first. There are man-made Colostrum options but though helpful they will still never be the same. If the lamb misses out on the colostrum you will have a lot of catching up to do as the surrogate mummy.
Orphan lambs start on Lambs milk which is bought in a powder form. Much like formula this is mixed with warm water in sterile bottles and given to them every four hours initially. This does spread out more as they get older but initially, you will want to clear your schedule and get ready for little to no sleep and some serious under-eye bags. If you have a particularly weak lamb (like we did) the amount you give needs to be reduced and the feeds need to give more often. The lambs will need milk in varying amounts up until they are around three months old.
At around three weeks you need to introduce ‘Creep’ into their pen. In laymen’s terms, these are lambs pellets. don’t expect them to do much other than spilling them for the first few days but they will start to nibble and digest a few as they work out there is more to life than milk. At this stage they also need fresh water (again be prepared to be clearing up a lot of spilt water).
Over the course of the first three months, we gradually teetered out the milk and gave them access to grass, hay and the great outdoors (which thankfully went smoothly). The transition from two bottles to one bottle to no bottles was honestly heartbreaking. We would go out into the field to be greeted by hungry faces and have nothing for them, frantic would be an understatement so be prepared for that weaning process, it takes a lot of willpower on both parts.
We went into this with absolutely no knowledge other than what Google could offer us and a few friends with experience in farming. It wasn’t a great financial obligation but when we first started these were the things we bought:
- A Pen – This came in the form of a second-hand wooden kids playpen (found on Facebook marketplace)
- Bottles – We bought six of these from the pound shop (yes they work just as well they just need a bit more of a slit made in the teat)
- Lamb Milk Powder – Our local animal feed merchant
The only other thing that’s not on this list is caffeine and a lot of patience.
Having the lambs who have now grown into full-blown sheep at home has been an incredible experience (though I’m sure with six Chihuahuas here they think they are dogs). It has been a HUGE learning curve that I’m sure will never stop. With shearing/worming and foot trimming ahead I’m sure there will be another blog to come but to end I wanted to share some interesting facts about these beautiful creatures:
- Their wool will grow forever – Back in 2004, Shrek the Merino sheep hid in a cave for six years so he wouldn’t have to get sheared. But the time he was cornered and given his long-overdue haircut on New Zealand national television, there was enough wool to make 20 men’s suits.
- They have nearly 360 degree vision – Sheep have rectangular pupils that give them amazing peripheral vision – it’s estimated their field of vision is between 270 and 320 degrees; humans average about 155 degrees – and depth perception. These are great assets when you’re a prey animal. It’s like surround sound for the eyes.
- Some Sheep are gay – Some male sheep prefer other males. Some females prefer other females. Love is love. While there are instances of homosexuality in nearly all animal species, sheep are the only animals besides humans that show a same-sex preference for life. In flocks of domestic sheep, up to eight percent of the males prefer other males even when fertile females are around. In many other animal species males will pair up with males and females with females under certain circumstances, but with sheep it’s a life-long propensity.
- Sheep can’t right themselves if they’re on their back – Sheep that are heavily pregnant, overweight, or have a heavy fleece have a very hard time righting themselves if they’ve somehow fallen onto their backs. There’s even a term for the situation. They’re called cast sheep. So if you see one in this position they’re probably stressed and freaking out so find a farmer and help roll ’em back over. Here’s a video of a cast sheep getting a helping hand.
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