Monthly Archives: May 2010

Foster Lambs Story Continued

One of the rather glorious aspects of being the caregiver for foster lambs, is that it requires me to sit quietly outside, morning and evening and just take in the world. (The daytime feedings are often more hectic with lots of visitors or events on the go.)

At six in the morning, during this stretch of high pressure calm weather, the birds are trying to outdo each other with the mating calls and rituals. We have at least two nesting orioles and two nesting house wrens, and their music alone is spectacular. Yesterday, a loon calling in the lake nearby brought me quietly down to watch 3 young loons, diving and skittering on the surface, and already showing an impressive capacity for underwater time and distance. Then a big water disturbance in the cove proved to be very large carp, mating.

The foster lambing experience this year has been quite different.

The warm calm days are magnificent for tiny wet lamb survival – although it is creating nightmares for the farmers who are increasingly concerned about pastures and hay production.

So, we’ve so far had way fewer fosters than in any previous year I can remember. (One rather over prolific year, with triplets the norm and quads and even surviving quints not unknown, I had 162 foster lambs to raise.) So far, I’ve handled 5 lambs, of whom three found adoptive ewe mamas. That of course is the ideal. If the lamb isn’t raised by a sheep, it doesn’t know the flock behaviours, and just won’t thrive if returned to the flock.

The lambs raised for meat must be top quality, so they will have been raised by their mamas, not by me.

Our policy has always been to find potential homes for them first, then set that limit to the number we could raise. (In the foster lambalanche year, we had a goat farmer who weaned her kids just in time to pick up our lambs to be raised by the goats. That worked beautifully.) This year, we have had requests for 14 lambs, and it doesn’t look as though I’ll be able to meet that number. That of course, is good news for our flock – that most are being raised by the ewes.

There is such a variation in the skills shown by each lamb.

It has to adjust to the foreignness of rubber nipple, powdered milk (designed for their digestion), and being held. (It would be better for the lamb to learn to eat standing on its own feet, but my back can’t cope with that.) I try to move gently and speak softly around the little guys, warm the ‘milk’ just so, and snuggle them up. I hold them comfortably under my left arm, with my left hand supporting the chin and if necessary opening his mouth (just by sliding my finger in the corner of his mouth a bit). My right hand guides the nipple in, and supports the chin, so the milk flow is all lined up. For some, that first warm taste of food is enough – they are sucking eagerly, if inefficiently. (I had to change a nipple for a much smaller opening for one scrawny little guy, who was trying to drown or choke, he was so eager.) In other cases, I have to gently squeeze the nose to push in a few drops, stroke the throat, tickle rub the back of his back (the area a nursing ewe can reach.) One female took an hour to consume less than 2 oz. Occasionally, the ewes can detect that there is just some developmental problem in the one of the three they reject, and we are slower to discover that difficulty.

The ewe and twins who are living in the front yard are pleasant company for the fosters, who live in a smaller cage (so I don’t have to chase them) inside the much larger penned yard area. The ewe will emit her soft nicker when I first bring them outside in the morning, will check them out, but knows they aren’t her responsibility. Her twins were almost certainly sired by two rams. One is very Suffolk-y – with lovely patch brown/black markings all over. The other, almost for sure, is Canadian Arcott. (That name is derived from Agricultural Research Centre, Ottawa). The former tend to be calm steady mothers; both have excellent meat conformation. Anyway, they are feeling full of the joys of spring; in the morning and evening especially, they cavort, boinging straight up, all 4 legs stiff, leaping and tumbling occasionally and just expressing the joy of being alive.

Lambs Needing Help at Topsy Farms

Our shepherd, Christopher, says that the gestation period for lambs is 4 months, 3 weeks and 4 days. We calculate when to put the rams in, based on when we want the birthing to begin. (Ideally, once the weather has warmed and there is sufficent pasture to keep the flock groupings well fed – the second week of May.) However, that turned out to be on the weekend that was very cold – there was snow in Ottawa and Kingston – and the ewes appear to be able to ‘cross their legs’ – holding off the birthing for a day or so. Its a wonderful survival skill in the wild.

So, the first year lambers, called ‘replacements’, started lambing first, and a few days later the mature ewes followed their example. Ideally, we hope a first year mama willl raise a good sized single lamb, and the mature ewes will raise an average of two each. (Some are able to raise triplets successfully; others only have a big single.)

Sometimes a ewe will choose to nurture one or two, and will ignore one, for no apparent reason. Very occasionally, a lamb is stillborn. Chris does his best to arrange an adoption. If a lamb is hungry and there are no prospective adoptive mothers, or if an adoption fails, the lambs will come to me to foster.

The first lamb was a big, hungry beauty. His large frame splayed off both sides of my lap, no matter how we tried to cuddle. He didn’t recognize either the black rubber nipple, the stubby beer bottle, the sounds of comfort I was trying to make, nor the initial taste of the formula on his lips. But once the nipple was inserted and he got the first glug, he certainly recognized food when he tasted it! The enthusiastic sucking made me tighten my grip on the bottle. He came up once for air, then didn’t know how to find the source again. With help, he was able to find what he wanted and downed the entire bottle. His tummy was no longer concave. He slept for the night in a big dog cage on our front porch, then after another enthusiastic feeding, spent the day outside in a small wire pen, enclosed within the larger pen for the ewe and twins due to arrive.

He thrived on the four feedings a day, filling out visibly. He was calm enough to take a feeding from my 5 year old grandson Nathan, with “help” from his brother Michael. Once solidly established, our shepherd put an elastic ring around his tail and testicles. It is the most humane way to dock and castrate, as the circulation is gradually cut off, and the part atrophies and falls off, unnoticed. He also received the required ear tag.

After a day of quiet recovery and lots more food, he was picked up by his doting new owner who will raise him in company with a few other sheep and a llama.

Unexpectedly there was a few lambless days interval, which was welcome as I was preparing lots of pots of plants for the Island long weekend market.

With perfect timing, the second male lamb was brought to me on Sat. of the long weekend. He was rejected by his first mom, then had a failed adoption, so he’s a little weaker; a much less assertive eater. He is very quiet to hold, but doesn’t yet seek the nipple. Fortunately we now have company for him, as a big ewe and her twins are in the big front yard penned area. She sounds the quiet protective nicker each morning when I bring him outside, ensuring he’s alright – but knows he isn’t hers. He’ll eat half a bottle at a time. I’m trying to give him small amounts, more often, until he feels stronger.

Why the beer bottle you might ask? The old ‘stubbies’ fit nicely into the microwave if the formula, a powdered lamb milk replacer, needs to be warmed. Whatever works, on a farm.


We are lambing entirely on pasture. The fields are glorious in this early spring, with the sheltering trees well leaved out, and the lake, to the west and the north of the fields, shining with deceptive warmth. The pasture is early, but already showing the effects of the lack of rainfall, especially on our shallow soil.

We used to lamb in the barn which was much more labour intensive, but we are all still working hard.

Christopher, our primary shepherd, checks the ewes in the several fields at least at dawn and sunset and after lunch. He is looking for any birthing challenges; any ewes in difficulty needing help, or any new lambs that are apparently not getting enough to eat. Time is challenging, as the ten guardian dogs must be fed and patted and checked, regular chores done, and labour continues intensely on the Predator Control fence that we’ve been erecting around the approximately 4 km perimeter of the home farm. Brush and limbs were cleared, post holes drilled and posts erected and braced at the corners, the 4 feet of woven wire has been strung and tightened and attached – so at least we can keep the sheep in. Now we are finishing adding 18″ of electric wires, (total height, 5′ 6″) and building gates. Its a big undertaking, trying to reinforce the dogs’ efforts to protect the flock from the coyotes.

But the weather has stayed glorious (easier for lambs in warm dry weather, but ominously dry for the abundant hay crop we always yearn for). We have the “ewe lambs” – first year mamas, bred to a smaller ram known for it ‘survivability’ characteristics, so hopefully, each first year ewe will have a single good sized lamb with not much birthing difficulty. They are grouped in two fields, not adjacent, so if a lamb slips through the fence, it can be retrieved and returned to its mama.

The mature ewes (ages two to about seven or eight) are in three other fields. We breed these ewes to purebred rams who have the genetic qualities we seek in our flock – good birthing, good mothering, good meat confirmation, good fleeces, good milk production etc. Each breed tends to have one or two of these strengths, so our females are now a mixed “Topsy” breed.

When possible, Chris will organize an adoption, if there is a feeding problem with a lamb. Most often this will happen if a ewe has triplets, and one of the three is much larger or smaller. The ewe may not nurture that one well. He’ll take that hungry lamb and convince a new mom with a single that she’s actually had two. There are various techniques for this – a little more challenging in the fields.

If that is not successful, and the lamb continues hungry but otherwise healthy, it comes to me as a foster lamb, to be bottle fed until it is well enough established to go to a new home. More on that in the next instalment.


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