Spring is a busy time of the year on our farm. This is lambing season, with late-night walks and early mornings starts looking for newborns.
When I think back on my childhood, I loved lambing season. I remember the excitement of seeing the new batch of lambs. They were like teddy bears with their snow-white coats. Secretly I wished each one would become a pet.
My father wasn’t keen on that; he preferred lambs to be reared by the sheep. Yet every year, he would arrive home with the cutest lamb. There were different reasons why the sheep couldn’t look after their new baby. I didn’t care because I wanted my very own.
Fast forward a few decades, and I fully understand why my father was reluctant to bring home a newborn lamb. While it’s the best thing that a sheep rears its lambs, sometimes this isn’t possible.
Looking after a lamb allowed me to learn so much. It’s not just about feeding and raising them. You will come away with so much more. They show you compassion, empathy and a deep understanding of life and caring for something besides yourself. The lessons you learn from rearing them will stay with you.
My husband and I both grew up with sheep. When our own children came along, we wanted them to have the same experience as us. While we didn’t go out of our way to do that, it’s just something that naturally occurred. Our children, particularly our daughter, has a fondness for sheep. Because of her close contact with pet lambs, she has acquired a lot of knowledge about them, especially our breed. While there is a lot you can learn from the many books, farming organisations, and websites. There is nothing like the daily encounter with these animals and their younglings. For more information about sheep click onto https://devlinfarmlife.com/6-facts-about-sheep-in-ireland/
How does a lamb become a pet?
Every year we get two to three lambs that have to be reared away from their mother. When our daughter was younger, she used to take in pet lambs from neighbours. She acquired a reputation for minding and raising them. Most years, she reared 10-14. She rarely lost a lamb. Most of them came from other farms because they didn’t want the hassle. There are a few reasons why the ewe can’t rear them.
- The sheep has a surplus of lambs.
- They might not bond with the lamb (e.g. ewe with twins)
- The ewe contracts mastitis
- The sheep dies
When a lamb is born, it must get access to Colostrum. Colostrum is the first milk that the sheep produce.
- It has many essential functions, including providing immunity to the lamb because of its antibodies.
- Secondly, it’s an easily digestible source of energy and nutrients.
- Thirdly it acts as a laxative to clean out the digestive tract. According to Teagasc, the Colostrum will enable the lamb to build a passive immune system which will wane over the following 3-12 weeks of life. https://www.teagasc.ie/media/website/about/farm-advisory/kerry—limerick/Importance-of-Colostrum-for-Lambs—February-22nd.pdf
The lamb should have Colostrum in its body within the first two to eighteen hours. We expect farmers from around the area to drop of lambs to us. For that reason, we buy a colostrum supplement just because, if not, the lamb may die.
How much to feed an infant lamb?
Feeding lambs can be time and labour intensive. The farmer has other animals on the farm to care for and might not have adequate time. It is helpful to delegate feeding to other members of the family, especially children. It’s a great idea to get kids involved as it gives them responsibility and an interest in sheep. It’s crucial that feeding is timed and measured correctly because it might hinder the lamb’s growth. Now that the Colostrum has been given within the first 24 hours. It is now time to move onto a milk replacer.
- Milk replacers should be mixed according to the manufacturer’s instructions. We keep feed volumes at 250ml and feed more frequently as the lambs get stronger. To give 1.5L /day takes 6 feeds; it is more time consuming than giving 2 feeds of 750ml, which milk replacer suppliers suggest from day 7 to day 35.
Health problems in pet lambs
Lamb bloating & Orf
- Lamb bloating (Abomasal bloat) is one of the most common and heart-wrenching killers of pet lambs, particularly those over 2-weeks old. When I was growing up, many of our pet lambs died of bloating. My husband has used his farming experience and science background and has prevented this problem on our farm.
- It’s important to note the lamb’s stomach is made up of four compartments. The reticulum, rumen, omasum and Abomasum.
When a baby lamb doesn’t get Colostrum, it is most likely that it will get abomasal bloating. Colostrum (high in antibodies) lines each compartment of the stomach with good bacteria. This, in turn, stops the dangerous bacteria (clostridium perfringens) from establishing.
- While the mechanism of abomasal bloat is not entirely understood, it is believed to be caused by a build-up of bacteria in the Abomasum compartment of the stomach. Bacteria such as clostridium perfringens type A and species of Sarcina have been identified in the guts of affected animals.
- The build-up of bacteria is aided by milk above 37 degrees. Hot milk helps the bacteria multiply—the sugar in the milk ferment with excess gas production. At the same time, the stomach becomes more acidic to the detriment of the good bacteria. As the gas cannot escape, it bloats the abomasum. Death is rapid and unpleasant.
- Orf is a virus to which lambs can be exposed. While it is not fatal, it is excruciating, causing stress to the lamb. Unlike abomasal bloat, Orff occurs outside the lamb’s body, especially around the face, ears, mouth, and teats. It’s a viral skin disease, and it can be spread to humans by handling infected sheep.
- Outbreaks can occur any time of the year but are prevalent in Spring. This may be related to the fact that sheep who have contracted orf have immunity for life. These same sheep may be carriers. Lambs are born in spring don’t have immunity. Pet lambs are coming from different farms; this deviates from the normal biosecurity measures (e.g. quarantining) followed on our farm. These lambs are housed together. They are inquisitive and check out all the surfaces (e.g. mouths). While pins are disinfected before putting in the lambs, they will find it if any surface is missed.
- The lamb’s immune system will fight the disease, and it will eventually cure by itself in a few weeks.
- Zwonose (a disease passed from animals to humans) is highly contagious. You don’t want to leave lambs with orf for that length of time.
- Treatments are to clean the area and spray with an antibiotic spray. Antibiotic doesn’t cure orf because it is a virus. The antibiotic spray prevents secondary infections. We use ovaloid capsules as a preventative measure. They aid recovery from orf. We use ovaloid because they promote healthy skin and orf is less likely to infect a lamb if it doesn’t have broken skin.
This year we are caring for three pet lambs. They are doing very well, though one of them has abomasum bloating. We are monitoring the situation, and he’s doing well. This year, I was more involved while our daughter is in the middle of her Leaving Certificate (final year in high school). It is pure joy because it brings some normality to those unforeseen times. Personally, it brought out the kid in me and many treasured memories. My dad passed away this past April, five years ago. He was a great sheep man. He’s the one I think about when I feed the lambs. I’d say he’s delighted with my new found interest in sheep. Want to find out more about our sheep then click on https://devlinfarmlife.com/6-facts-about-sheep-in-ireland/