How to Handle a Rejected Lamb

How to Handle a Rejected Lamb

The other week, my wife and I were asleep in bed after another long day of farm chores when our dog started frantically barking outside.  Right now, we have a half Lab, quarter Great Pyrenees, quarter Australian Shepherd.  We’ve raised him from the start to work with the sheep and to stay with them at night for their protection.

Assuming the dog was just barking at another raccoon or some other critter, I got up to yell out the front door for him to stop all the commotion and I promptly went back to bed.

The next morning, our oldest son started on his morning chores and discovered the real reason for the dog’s barking, and it wasn’t a raccoon.  It was the new addition of a little baby lamb.

By the time we got out to see the little guy, his mama had abandoned him, and he was left shivering in the cold.  Our guess is that right after he was born, the dog likely went over and started licking him and all the afterbirth, interfering in some way with mama-sheep doing all that process herself.  Regardless, it was clear she didn’t bond with her baby and by now, baby wasn’t looking well.

Whenever the lamb did try to nurse, the ewe showed no interested in allowing it to happen, at times getting quite annoyed by his attempts and head-butting him to the ground.

So, Amy bundled him up and brought him inside to get warm and to get something in his belly.  She expressed a few ounces of colostrum and was able to bottle-feed him with that.

My decision was for the bottle to only be a temporary solution because neither Amy nor I were particularly fond of the idea of having to find time to feed the lamb every couple of hours.  So, being an amateur sheep owner, I started googling how to handle a rejected lamb and facilitate re-bonding.  As it turns out, there is a lot of opinion on the internet.

One blogger basically said if a ewe has rejected her lamb, “good luck” trying to get her to accept him back.  The article then skipped straight into tips on bottle feeding.  Needless to say, I didn’t find that answer very helpful.

Finally, I stumbled upon what is apparently an age-old solution to an age-old problem that sheep owners have long dealt with in a sheep rejecting her lamb, and the answer is a device called a “stanchion.”

A stanchion is a kind of restraint that keeps the ewe safely in her place while her lamb is free to nurse beneath her.  The idea is that after some time of forcing the process, the ewe may grow accustomed to the lamb and eventually accept him back with incident.

In our case, we didn’t have a stanchion lying around, so, until I could find the time to build one for future use, another article said I could simply tie her lead to a post (or some other anchor) with as little slack as possible without hurting her and that would accomplish the same goal.

This is what we ended up doing, and I’m pleased to say the method worked beautifully.

The lamb immediately started nursing and the ewe gradually started taking an interest back in her lamb.  Thankfully, it only took one night for them to re-bond.

If you are dealing with a rejected lamb, I can share a few thoughts from our own experience that might be helpful:

  1. It is important to get colostrum in the lamb as soon as possible.

Colostrum, as you may know, is the first secretion of all those rich antibodies that a baby needs most to thrive.  If Mama sheep isn’t letting her lamb nurse, what you can do is go get a bottle and express enough to get you by.  I remember reading a lamb should consume something like 16 ounces of colostrum within the first 24 hours and, ideally, half of that should happen within the first 8 hours after birth.

  1. If you handle the lamb, don’t try to wash him or clean him up.

As much as possible, keep the Mama’s scent on the baby.  On this point, if at all possible, don’t introduce anything but the smell of the Mama’s own milk.  You don’t want to give her any more reasons not to accept him back.

  1. As cute and fun as it is to bottle-feed a lamb, remember the objective is to reunite him with his mama.

After you’re sure the lamb has what he needs to survive, get him back out and work on re-bonding the two back together.  You can build yourself a stanchion or use a lead to restrain the Mama sheep to allow the lamb to nurse.  It’s helpful if this is done in separation from all the other sheep and in separation from the dog.  It’s best to give Mama and her lamb their own stall or pen to get this done.

  1. Be patient.

Just be patient.  I was up with them well past midnight to be sure things were going well. I’m also told re-bonding can take a couple of days to be done right.

If after trying all of that, things are still not working out, you can always work out that bottle feeding schedule.  Most lambs are weaned in about 60 days.  That comes out to about 8 weeks.  It’s not the end of the world if that’s what you end up having to do.

As a word of encouragement, there are valuable lessons to learn in dealing with a rejected lamb.   For example, the experience can teach us about our own failings as imperfect creatures, particularly as imperfect parents to our own children.  The fact of matter is, like my stubborn ewe who rejected her lamb, I can sometimes reject, deprive, and fail my own children without meaning to.  I can fail my own Great Shepherd who has high expectations for me in how I care for my kids.  If my ewe has taught me anything, it’s that I too am an imperfect parent.

What’s encouraging though is that despite our failures, God is faithful to put us back on track, at times forcing us to do what we need to be doing.

Isaiah 49:15 which reads,

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you.”

I find that so encouraging.  Though a mother may inadvertently fail her child, God will never fail us.  For he is faithful, and he teaches us how to be faithful.

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