By Claire Morgan-Davies and Poppy Frater, Scotland’s Rural College

Mortality of foster lambs is higher than mother-reared lambs, so choosing the right method is important.

In a survey of UK sheep farmers, wet fostering was the preferred method. Methods that rely on altering the smell of the lamb work more closely with the ewe’s own biology (wet fostering, skinning dead lambs, masking or transferring odours) and tend to be more successful than those that involve restraining the ewe for the lamb to suckle.

There were an assortment of tips for fostering lambs and managing weak or orphan lambs at the recent SheepNet workshops in Italy, Spain and Romania.

The ideal situation for an orphan or triplet lamb is to foster on to another ewe with plentiful milk supply. To encourage ewe licking behaviour, the Irish, Spanish and Romanian partners suggested covering the lamb in warm, salty water. This was also suggested for lamb rejections in attempts to re-establish the ewe-lamb bond. In addition, tying the fostered lamb’s hind legs together when wet fostering on will mimic a newborn lamb and stop it walking off and, for issues with ewes prohibiting the lamb suckling, put a bucket with the bottom cut out over head to stop her butting the suckling lamb.

A protocol, put together by Teagasc, is summarised below:

1. Ensure the ewe has adequate milk to rear a second lamb prior to fostering

2. When the ewe starts to lamb collect some birth fluids in a container

3. Wash the foster lamb in warm salty water paying special attention to the head, neck and rear end

4. Dry the lamb off and tie the legs together to mimic a newborn lamb

5. Wash the lamb in the birth fluids paying special attention to the head, neck and rear end

6. Handle the ewe to mimic the birth of a second lamb

7. Allow the ewe to lick the foster lamb first

8. Make sure her lamb gets sufficient colostrum and then unbind the legs of the foster lamb

For weak lambs, well-designed ‘first aid’ areas free from draught and easily accessible for feeding were also popular. This example pictured came from Canada – easily cleaned and accessible lambing boxes for those lambs needing more attention.

Orphan lambs are difficult to avoid and stress can lead to poor lamb survival and growth rates. A Romanian farmer opted to keep a good mature ewe in with the orphan lambs to keep them calm. The selected ewe should have a calm temperament, good maternal instinct and reared multiple litters. The farmer observed the lambs with a mature ewe were less stressed, vocalised less, started consuming lamb starter at an earlier age and had higher survival and growth rates to weaning.

Check our online SheepNet knowledge reservoir ( You can also join the network to receive newsletters and register to the upcoming workshop in Ireland in June, and follow us on Twitter (@SheepNetEU) and Facebook (SheepNetEU) for regular updates. SheepNet received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.