Most deliveries of lambs take about 5 hours from the start of cervical dilation to expulsion of the lamb. The majority of these deliveries can be performed by the ewe with no assistance, however, in some situations, an abnormal delivery occurs and the ewe requires assistance in lambing.
A ewe in need of assistance will demonstrate one of more of the following:
- Straining to give birth for many hours yet no sign of a lamb or waterbag
- Straining and has produced or even broken the waterbag yet no lamb
- The lamb is wedged in the birth canal
- The lamb is abnormally presented. A normal delivery will have a lamb with front legs first and head forward following. Abnormal presentations can involve one or both front legs back, head back, back legs first, or (worst case scenario) breach position - the lamb is curled over and the curled back is facing the birth canal - CALL A VET!!. All of these abnormal presentations mean the lamb has become too wide to exit the birth canal.
To assist the ewe, it is best to isolate and pen her off as she will be distressed and nervous - not willing to stand still when you have a poke about. A second person is useful as they can kneel on the ewe's neck so she will stay still and perhaps lie down. Some people find a bale of straw useful to put the sheep on so she is a bit higher!
Once you have your ewe isolated and calm (easier said than done...), it is important to prepare yourself. A vital point: make sure your fingernails are short - you are doing an internal examination of a ewe and she will not be happy if you rupture her vagina or womb... Also, so you don't bring infection into the uterus, scrub your hands and arms with a mild disinfectant. Some people like to clean the sheep's vulva with mild soap and water but if you use a pessary this is not hugely necessary. Get your handy friend to keep the sheep still and have the following nearby:
- lubricant (lots of it)
- lambing aids (these generally involve a looped string to loop around the lamb's legs, and a stick like device with a solid loop on the end to loop about the lamb's head)
- a cup of soapy water to soften the lambing aids with
- a pessary, if you're using one
- straw or a towel
When thoroughly prepared, squirt lots of lubricant onto your hands and smother it over and slightly inside the ewe's vagina, and over the lamb's head if it's visible. Squirt more lubricant over your hands and smother up your arms. If your handy friend has smaller hands than you, swap with them and make them do the dirty work because a sheep's vagina is not the most spacious place to be. Cup your hand slightly and with a slight circling motion begin to work your way into the ewe. Be gentle. She wont like this. When your hand is immersed, you need to feel how the lamb is arranged to discover the problem in the delivery. Again, if it is breach CALL THE VET!!!
Now comes the tricky bit: you need to rearrange the lamb so it is in a normal position as possible. If the lamb's head was sticking out, you need to use the rigid lambing aid around its head to push it back in. Neither party will like this. When moving a back-facing lamb's leg forwards, use two hands: one as a cup to protect the ewe's uterus from sharp lamb-hoof, and the other to gently move the leg round. Lamb's legs are weak and delicate, so always grasp above the second joint, otherwise you could pull the foot off. This is in an easy scenario. Use the same process for a lamb with head facing back but on a larger scale and take care not to break the lamb's neck (yes, haha, but it's easily done). If the lamb is facing backwards (back legs first), then you need to move fast as soon as you have the lamb's belly half out of the ewe, as the umbilical cord will be broken, and the lamb could drown or suffocate if you do not remove it from the ewe fast enough.
Once you have the lamb out of the ewe, hold it upside down by its back legs and swing sligtly and/or firmly stroke from its back legs to the ribcage. This will help get the fluid out of it. Take some straw or a towel and rub it vigorously as it will be covered in fluid and will get cold quickly if you do not dry it. Present it to the ewe so she can take the care from here. While she is not noticing, slip the pessary into her vagina to help prevent infection. Feel proud, leave handy friend to keep an eye on things, and go to take a shower!
Note: I wrote this for curiosity value. I suggest you don't try it at home.