From time to time you will hear stories of a ewe that has given birth, and then, quite miraculously, produced another lamb a week or so later. Well, unless you, personally, observed the ewe actually giving birth on both occasions then I suggest you take these stories with a very large pinch of salt! The most probable scenario is that, on entering the lambing field or shed after being absent for a while, two ewes (an old one and a young one) are noticed to have apparently given birth to a single lamb each, and are contentedly mothering their new offspring. All appears normal, so the ewes are penned up with the lambs and that’s that. However, an astute shepherd would have realised that in fact, the younger ewe had actually given birth to twins, the first of which had been stolen by an overly maternal, dominant, older ewe, while she was delivering the second. Subsequently, the older ewe goes into labour and produces her own lamb(s), at which point, if the mix-up wasn’t identified and rectified at the time, she may reject the stolen one. Its own mother won’t accept it back at this late stage either. Therefore, it can be seen that the vast majority of these stories are simply the result of poor shepherding and a general lack of understanding of sheep behaviour. Although it can occur when sheep are lambed outdoors, mismothering is more particularly a problem in housed flocks due to the close proximity of individual animals to one another. Other than good observation, there are a few steps that can be taken to help reduce the problem:
Pregnancy scanning. Knowing how many lambs each ewe is expecting can help avoid muddles such as in the example given above.
Provide corners. Placing straw bales or other barriers at intervals around the walls of the yard provides lots of little corners in which ewes can be alone to give birth. They also lessen the chance of the first born one of twins wandering off while the second is being born.
Remove troublemakers. Some maternally minded old ewes will persist in stealing each and every new born lamb they come across, for maybe as much as week before their own lambs are due. This causes a lot of disturbance, and can be very distressing for the younger ewes, so it’s best to remove the troublemakers from the main lambing area. They can temporarily be housed with some later lambing sheep.