There is hardly anything in life more precious than a perfect, newborn baby lamb. And because of that, there’s nothing more heartbreaking than seeing that ewe reject her newborn! It is appalling, but it does happen sometimes and that’s just nature.
Dealing with the issue is one thing that most shepherds will eventually get experience with, but maybe if we know why this phenomenon happens we can somehow prevent it.
So, why do sheep reject their babies?
Ewes may reject their lambs for numerous reasons, including the mother being injured or sick, a difficult or traumatic birth, sickness in the lamb, the lamb having an inability to nurse or the mother lacking enough or any milk, too many lambs being born, or the lamb being unable to keep up with the flock while in the pasture.
It turns out there are quite a few reasons why a mother sheep might reject her young, even while they are newborns.
This doesn’t mean necessarily that the lamb is unhealthy and you should let it die, and it doesn’t even necessarily mean there’s anything wrong with the mother.
Overreacting is always the wrong decision, but to make the right one you’ll need to know more about each of these reasons. Keep reading and I’ll tell you all about them below…
1. Ewe is Injured or Sick
If the mother, or ewe, is injured or sick prior to birthing the lamb, she might reject it.
There isn’t necessarily any rhyme or reason to this according to the type of injury or illness, but the greater the stress on the mother the more likely it is that she will reject her young.
Sometimes this can be avoided by holding off on breeding sheep that are recovering from significant sickness or injury, but much of the time either will occur while she’s with lamb…
In such a case, there isn’t much you can do except wait and see, and be ready to intervene and bottle-feed the lamb if required.
If you know the ewe was injured or sick and she quickly starts pushing or head-butting the lamb after birthing, assume the worst.
It isn’t out of the question that she will come around, but if she doesn’t in the first couple of days she is not likely to.
2. Difficult Birthing
Sometimes, for whatever reason, the birthing is just particularly difficult. If the ewe is traumatized or injured during the birth, lamb rejection is likely.
If the birth is difficult enough that it requires human intervention, the chances of rejection are generally pretty high.
Again, sometimes this can be prevented but much of the time it cannot.
Ongoing veterinary care and inspections can sometimes spot problems with a birth well before the time comes, but at least some of the time such ordeals will be a total surprise: Malpresentation, ringwomb, prolonged second-stage and more are all culprits!
Once again, it’s worth reminding that a difficult birth doesn’t necessarily mean that anything is wrong with the ewe or the lamb, even in the case that the former rejects the latter in the end.
Do your own due diligence and check on the lamb if you notice any obvious signs of rejection or the ewe acting oblivious to the lamb after birthing.
3. Lamb is Sick or Has Defect
Sadly, one of the most common reasons for lamb rejection is also one of the most well-known…
In nature, many mothers (or even both parents) have an instinctive sense for when something is wrong with their young at birth.
According to the brutal calculus of the wild, young that are weak, puny, infirm, deformed or defective might wind up being a drain on resources that can endanger the mother, the group, and other healthy siblings.
Accordingly, the mother or the parents might choose to exile, abandon or even kill the afflicted young.
In the case of sheep, the ewe will prevent the lamb from nursing by leaving them behind or, if confined, resorting to violence. Rejected lambs usually die in just a couple of days, if that.
If you notice a ewe rejecting her lamb with vigor, there might be a problem with it and you should investigate before making your final determination and decision.
4. Failure to Latch
Every once in a while, everything seems to go well with the birth: The ewe is healthy and not stressed, the lamb seems healthy and whole, and nothing is the matter.
And then, out of nowhere, the ewe rejects the lamb for seemingly no reason, hours or sometimes days later. What gives?!
Sometimes, a lamb has trouble latching on to the teat and nursing, even if mom has plenty of milk and even if there are no other siblings competing for said milk.
If that happens, the ewe will recognize that the lamb is struggling, and accordingly is more likely to reject it.
If all is going well and you notice the lamb having a hard time getting milk, and mom isn’t interfering with that, you might be able to help out and prevent the rejection from occurring.
5. Ewe Lacks Enough Milk
Another sad fact of the matter is that the ewe might not have enough milk to go around, particularly likely if she has two or more lambs.
Instinctively, the ewe will know when to cut her losses and abandon her lamb or lambs if she’s not going to be able to complete nursing.
Sometimes, whatever the reason, a ewe simply won’t produce milk. This is most likely if she became pregnant out of season, see the next section, but is not the only reason why she might fail to lactate.
Particularly likely in older ewes, in times of famine or any other situation where nutrition is suboptimal, a lack of milk is highly likely to result in rejection.
In this situation, your only choice is to help the lambs by bottle-feeding them or, if you’re very lucky, getting another ewe in milk to adopt them.
6. Ewe is Out of Season
Ewes will go through regular cycles of heat throughout the year, during which time they will willingly accept a ram for mating.
However, it is possible by fluke (or by design) for a ewe to become a pregnant out of season, and the resulting births are more likely to end in rejection of the lamb.
This is a variable factor, and one that seems to affect individual sheep, and even certain lines of various breeds, more than others.
It’s good to keep in mind if you are trying to increase the expansion of your flock in the off season, and so long as you’re able to deal with higher-than-usual rejection rates, this isn’t a factor to be very concerned with.
7. Too Many Lambs
Sheep typically only birth one or two lambs at a time, and this is for a reason: ewes can usually only take care of one or two at a time!
However, a ewe being pregnant with triplets is hardly unheard of, but sadly this occasion is rarely one for celebration.
That’s because the third lamb, or sometimes the weakest of the bunch, will be rejected. Most ewes will not produce enough milk to reliably take care of three lambs…
This commonly results in higher rejection rates the climb in direct proportion with the number of lambs being birthed.
More lambs means more of them will be rejected, and if the birthing is particularly harsh, a ewe might reject all of them!
8. Lamb Cannot Keep Up
Of particular concern for any sheep that are kept in pasture, sometimes a mother might not care to slow down and wait for her lambs if she herself is trying to keep up with the rest of the flock.
In these cases, it is very much do or die for the poor little lamb. If a lamb cannot keep pace with its mother sticking with the rest of the flock, it will be left behind to die.
This is especially harsh on lambs because they need so much energy the first few days of their life, and it might be in short supply if the flock is on the move.
This is another tendency that is somewhat individual, although it is influenced by flock behavior as mentioned: some ewes are diligent, doting and caring mothers, and will go as slow as they have to make sure their lambs stay with them.
Others seem to spare not even a single thought for their newborns and will gallop off leaving them in the dust.
Others fall somewhere in the middle, encouraging lambs to keep pace but eventually getting fed up with delays and then leaving them behind.
This is preventable to a degree by keeping the ewe and her lambs, when they arrive, in a smaller separate pasture or enclosure so there is less pressure for them to keep up with the rest of the flock.
In all cases, keep an eye on the little lambs and make sure they aren’t struggling to get milk or seem to be a burden on the mother.
You might have another bottle baby on your hands, but in this situation there’s not one other thing wrong with the young lamb…
9. Poor Maternal Instincts
Let’s face it: not every mother is cut out to be a mom, if you take my meaning. This is certainly the case with some ewes. For whatever reason, some just seem clueless.
They don’t really know how to react to the baby they just brought into the world, they don’t particularly want the baby nursing on them, and they just seem either oblivious or annoyed by the whole affair and act accordingly.
This is especially terrible to see if mom and lamb are otherwise healthy, but there really isn’t one thing for it otherwise: as a last-ditch effort, you can confine the ewe and her lamb or lambs and a small enclosure or paddock to try and get them to bond, but you must monitor the situation closely at all times!
If you resort to this technique, a ewe that doesn’t want anything to do with her lambs will headbutt and kick to prevent them from nursing.
This can have obvious and immediate consequences for the little lamb as hostilities escalate.
There is a chance you can get them to bond this way, but don’t count on it if mom is simply not interested in raising them.
10. Scent Confusion
One strange way that a ewe might reject her lamb is in the case of scent confusion. Ewes are highly dependent on recognizing their lambs by scent, and every once in a while, if multiple ewes are birthing near each other it’s possible for certain, uh, fragrances to comingle and mix up the mothers.
When this occurs, a given ewe might reject one of her very own and try to adopt, or rather steal, the lamb from another ewe!
It sounds almost comedic, but the results can be anything but, especially if it leads to hostility within the flock. It can also cause a domino effect of rejection; see the next section.
The best solution for this is an obvious one: make sure ewes have plenty of room to themselves when nearing their due date, and do what you can to prevent successive births from taking place too close to other ewes with lamb.
11. Lamb Thievery
Certainly the strangest and possibly the most troubling case of why a ewe would reject her lamb is an instance of lamb thievery!
It’s exactly what it sounds like: sometimes, maybe due to aggressive maternal instincts or the aforementioned scent confusion a ewe might be of a mind to try and take a lamb away from another ewe.
Occasionally, this is successful and the lamb will live and nurse on another mother for a time.
But, after a short period, usually no more than 10 days or so, the ewe that swiped the lamb will then sometimes reject it, and as is often the case, the rejected lamb will then try and return to its birthing, biological mother.
As you might sadly expect, it’s then too late: much of the time the birthing ewe will reject her “prodigal” lamb, and it will be effectively orphaned.
This is a relatively rare case, but one that is highly troubling and almost impossible to solve. Be prepared for a bottle baby if this happens in your flock!
Tom has lived and worked on farms and homesteads from the Carolinas to Kentucky and beyond. He is passionate about helping people prepare for tough times by embracing lifestyles of self-sufficiency.