Why Do Sheep Reject Their Lambs And How to Prevent It? (Solved)

By Dairy Farming Hut


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Dairy sheep sometimes reject their lambs, causing a major problem for farmers and shepherds. Lambing is a work-intensive time for shepherds, and having complications with ewes rejecting lambs adds to the general mayhem and exhaustion. It is useful to know what to do if a dairy sheep rejects her lamb. It allows the shepherd to make preparations to deal with this difficult situation.

It is best to try and have lambs looked after by a ewe. This can be done by bonding the ewe to her lamb using human intervention. Rejected lambs can also be grafted onto an unrelated ewe to be raised as her own. Rejected lambs may be bottle-fed using ewe milk or milk replacer.    

Animals rejecting their babies is always a cause for concern, and dairy sheep are no exception. It is wise to be prepared to deal with a dairy ewe rejecting her lamb, as you have limited time to save the newborn.

How To Manage Dairy Sheep That Reject Their Lambs?

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If a dairy sheep rejects her lamb, it is important to address the situation immediately. Lambs are vulnerable and die quickly if they do not receive milk soon after birth. There are several approaches to solving the problem.

  • The shepherd can artificially try to bond the lamb to its mother using various techniques.
  • The lamb may be grafted onto an unrelated ewe that adopts the baby as her own.
  • The shepherd can bottle-feed the lamb.

It is helpful if the shepherd can determine why the ewe abandoned her lamb. This information allows the shepherd to choose an appropriate intervention method.

Why Do Dairy Sheep Reject Their Lambs?

There are several reasons that a ewe may abandon or reject a lamb. Ewes have individual personalities that can affect their reaction to a lamb. Some young inexperienced ewes may find the birth and delivery of a lamb strange. They are uncertain about what to do with the lamb and avoid feeding it.

Ewes that have had a traumatic birth may associate the pain with the lamb and reject it. If the ewe got a fright during birth or shortly after, she might not want to accept the lamb. Sheep are skittish creatures; even a dog barking suddenly close by during birth may be enough to frighten the ewe.

Human interference can result in a dairy sheep that rejects her lamb. Unfamiliar people that want to see the newborn lamb or birth can upset the ewe. Ewes need time to bond with their lambs. If they do not receive the privacy and opportunity to do this, the lamb may be rejected.

A sick or undernourished ewe may not have the strength or energy to have any interest in her baby. Standing to feed may be difficult for ewes with compromised health.

Mastitis is uncomfortable and painful, and it is not uncommon for ewes suffering from this to refuse to feed their lambs. Mastitis risks the mother's survival and must be treated to save the ewe and lamb.    

Some ewes have little to no maternal reactions to their lambs. They may be aggressive and even injure their babies. These ewes are usually eliminated from the breeding program as the behavior can be genetic and generally occurs with each lambing.

Lambs may be abandoned by inexperienced mothers that walk too fast. The lamb cannot keep up and becomes lost repeatedly. The lost lambs do not feed sufficiently and quickly become dehydrated and hypothermic.

How To Bond A Dairy Sheep To Its Lamb?

If the ewe is young and inexperienced, it is worth the effort to try and bond her to the lamb. This method may also work for ewes that have been traumatized by birth or by events surrounding the birth. A ewe that did not receive adequate time or peace to bond with her lamb may also be convinced to accept her lamb using bonding techniques.

You need a bonding pen to help a ewe and her lamb bond. This can be any secure, quiet enclosure where the ewe and lamb cannot escape. There should be no stressors such as dogs, machinery, or many people walking around. 

The pen should not be too large, or the ewe will ignore the lamb and walk away. The aim is for the mother and baby to be in close proximity. The bonding pen must be big enough for the ewe to turn around, lay down, and stand up without discomfort.

Put the lamb and its mother in the pen and watch to ensure she is not actively trying to hurt or kill the baby. If the baby seems safe, you can leave them for two to three hours.

After the initial period, you should enter the pen to assist the lamb in nursing from the mother. Put a halter on the ewe and tie her head up high to the side of the stall. Guide the lamb to the udder and assist it in finding the teats.  

Some ewes kick, and they may need to have their feet held or hobbled to prevent them from kicking the baby. If the udder is very full, it is helpful to milk it a little to relieve the pressure and pain experienced by the ewe when the lamb drinks. Also, a distended udder makes it more difficult for weak lambs to nurse, so removing some milk aids the lamb.

Repeat the assisted feeding every four hours. Usually, the ewes accept the baby within two days, but some take longer. Do not use this method with aggressive ewes, as they may kill the lamb.

What Is Lamb Grafting?

Lamb grafting is when various techniques are used to have an unrelated ewe accept a lamb and adopt it as her own. Orphaned lambs, or lambs rejected by their mothers, benefit from nursing on the ewe and being cared for naturally within the flock.

Grafting a lamb saves time for shepherds who would otherwise have to hand-rear the lamb. It is worth spending time on this procedure rather than having to feed the lamb regularly for the first eight weeks.

Skin Grafting Lambs

Skin grafting is a messy business but is popular with some farmers. If a ewe's lamb dies, the baby's skin or pelt is removed. It is then attached to the orphaned lamb by tying it like a coat.

Theoretically, the lamb will smell like the ewe's dead lamb, and the ewe will accept it. It is useful to use a bonding pen to keep the two close together to aid in the development of a relationship. 

Disadvantages are that the skin rots and attracts insects which can cause problems for the lamb and ewe.

Odor Transfer Grafting

Odor transfer grafting is used when a ewe has a lamb, and the farmer wishes to graft an additional lamb to the ewe. The biological baby wears a stocking on its body for a day. The stocking is removed and placed on the foster lamb so that it can smell like one of the family.

It is beneficial to place the ewe with both babies in a bonding pen for a few days. This method is similar to skin grafting but has none of the disadvantages and can be used with ewes that have live lambs.

Slime Grafting

Slime grafting refers to the collection of amniotic fluid, birthing mucus, and the placenta and rubbing this on the abandoned lamb. The aim is to make the lamb smell like the ewe's own lamb. The process is most successful when done as soon as possible after the ewe has given birth.

Wet Grafting

Wet grafting involves washing the foster lamb to remove its smell. Farmers have their preferences on what to use to wash the lamb. Saltwater is commonly used. It is important to ensure the lamb does not become too cold, as it will be unable to drink the milk if it is hypothermic.

Vaginal Grafting

The ewe's vagina is stimulated gently by hand to mimic the birthing process soon after the birth of the ewe's own lamb. The idea is to trick the ewe into thinking she has given birth to another lamb. This technique is often used with other grafting techniques. It has variable success.

Restraint Grafting

Restraint grafting is similar idea to a bonding pen. The ewe is confined to a small pen with the lamb to allow the two to bond. It has a seventy percent success rate and takes approximately four days to be effective.

The farmer must restrain the ewe for feeding until the ewe allows the lamb to nurse without intervention.

Hand Rearing A Lamb

Previously, it was common for the farmer's wife to be in charge of hand-rearing orphaned or rejected lambs. Hand-rearing is time-consuming, as lambs must be fed every two hours for the first week.

The feedings can be reduced to every three hours in the second week while increasing the amount of milk slightly. Each week the lambs will need more milk each feed, and the number of feeds per day can be reduced.

Monitoring the lambs is crucial as too much milk, and too little milk are both problems. Cleanliness is critical to prevent the lambs from developing diarrhea. Bottles and teats must be washed and disinfected after each feed.

It is best to have several different teats available as lambs can be fussy about accepting the artificial teat. Lamb teats can be bought in various sizes, shapes, and materials.

Milk from the dairy sheep can be used, or a milk alternative may be purchased to feed the orphaned lambs.


A dairy sheep that rejects her lamb can sometimes be bonded to the lamb using a bonding pen. If this is ineffective or the lamb is orphaned, it may be grafted onto an unrelated ewe. Alternatively, the lamb can be hand-reared.

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