About a week before she delivers, the ewe will pass a mucous discharge that you may or may not witness. Her milk bag should look like it has milk in it, her teats will be enlarged, but they will be flaccid. As the ewe nears the delivery day itself, her teats will become firm. We pay particular attention to her when the teats point outward, they have turned pink in color and her vulva becomes flaccid and pink. Birthing is close at that point. Generally, she will be nesting (digging) in the hay or on the ground, she will be very restless, moving from place to place. Or when she has finally settled on a place to lamb, she will be standing up, lying down, standing up again and nesting (pawing the ground). When she begins to have contractions that are strong enough that you can visibly see her pushing, look at your watch. This should not go on for more than an hour before you do a physical exam to help position the lamb if necessary. Honestly, I rarely let more than about thirty minutes pass if I want to ensure the birth of a live lamb. I know lots of people will disagree, but I'm going by personal experiences with many different types of animals. If the mother is already in labor trying to deliver the baby, you will not be helping too soon. If you wait, however, you may end up with a dead lamb, or two. I have never had a mother reject her lamb/lambs because I helped her deliver. Most of the time, the ewe will deliver alone, unattended, without needing any help whatsoever. That usually happens at night. Pay close attention to a ewe trying to lamb during the day. That is not necessarily the "norm".
Birthing usually comes naturally.
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Pulling A Lamb
Have someone stand in front of the ewe holding her head. Wash your hands, put on a latex surgical OB glove (one that goes to the shoulder), grease up your glove with KY jelly and proceed to enter the uterus gently, otherwise the ewe may jump over the head of your helper. The size of your hands determines who is the holder and who is the helper. The smaller hands fit better.
If the ewe has been pushing for awhile and has not produced a lamb, it stands to reason that she may not be dilated. The cervix will be a tight fit for your hand to get through. Make your hand as skinny as possible and gently continue. Once you are passed the cervix and into the uterus, there will be more room to work. But remember, you will be working blind (you cannot see what you are doing) and with one hand tied behind your back (only one hand fits inside). You'll have to ignore the fact that the cervix is cutting off the circulation to your hand and work as quickly as possible. If you start to get a little squeamish at this point, what will usually help you to get beyond it is the fact that the lamb, and possibly the ewe, could die without your help. That makes heroes out of us every time.
The lambs are on the ewe's right side. Every time you have to pull a lamb, because of the non-sterile environment, it is a good idea to give your ewe a full round of antibiotics for several days after. If you find the legs of the lambs entangled, feel one leg from the body down to the foot. If you can fold the leg into a "U" shape, it is a front leg. If the leg folds into a "Z" formation, it is a hind leg. This will give you information about whether the lamb is coming head first (which is normal), or rear first (though it is not as good for the lamb to be born this way, it is an easy delivery for you and the ewe once the legs are untangled from the sibling). Check to see if the lamb's spine is on top or on the bottom. If it is on the bottom, the lamb will have to be turned over or it will not fit through the birth canal without possible serious injury. Sometimes it is only one lamb that is just too large for the ewe to deliver alone, or perhaps it is coming spine first. If you enter the birth canal and find a large solid object and no feet, the lamb is coming doubled over spine first and now you have a real problem. You must push the lamb out of the birth canal back into the uterus to turn it, so it is presenting head first preferably. Needless to say this is very painful for the ewe. I once had a ewe pass out because the pain was so great. Tell your helper to hold on tight before you begin the procedure. Once the lamb is in position, try looping a small cotton rope that has been soaked in a betadine solution, around one foot and then the other so you will be pulling both feet at the same time with equal pressure, pulling towards the ground, not straight out. The lamb will be very slippery and so will your greased glove which makes the cotton rope essential.
Okay, for those of you whose palms are beginning to sweat, I think its time to ease the tension a bit with a tale of a funny experience that Mike and I had birthing lambs. We apparently had twin lambs whose legs had become entangled and therefore were making things difficult for mom. I could feel one head and body, but six legs. To make sure that I was pulling on legs that went to the first lamb in line, I thought I should feel from the head down to the feet. As my fingers moved across the face coming down towards the chest, suddenly the lamb began sucking on my finger while still inside its protective sack. It scared me so bad, I jerked by hand out of the poor ewe who almost jumped over Mike's head knocking him backwards off his bucket. We eventually delivered two live lambs. We are still laughing about that experience years later. Okay, back to the business at hand.
Once the lamb/lambs are born and settled, keep an eye on mom. She should be content after she passes the placenta. If she acts restless, or if she is dripping blood from the vulva, or if she refuses to claim her lambs, she could be in trouble. Many things could be happening at this point. She could still be having small contractions to pass the placenta, or another lamb. With all the drama and trauma from having the first one or two, the next lamb could be dead, so prepare yourself for that outcome. There is nothing more exhilarating though, than helping her deliver a triplet that is alive.
You may ask why I haven't suggested calling a veterinarian by now. I can't even count the number of times that I have done just that to hear the vet tell me he's hours away and I'll have to do it myself, or "I don't work on sheep." You may hear that many times before you find your prince-charming veterinarian, hopefully before your damsel in distress ewe needs him.