The 2022 lambing season is in full swing at Colonial Williamsburg. So far, we have eighteen happy and healthy lambs, but lambing will continue through May. Even though lambing doesn’t start until mid-March, our livestock husbanders start planning for it in September.
First, we look at all the adult sheep. Our sheep need to adhere to certain characteristics to be registered as Leicester Longwools. We take notes on every sheep, looking at things like wool quality, ear, eye, and nose color, hoof color, stance, weight, and teeth. The goal is to breed sheep that will have the best possible characteristics, so we might pair a ewe that has an underbite with a ram that has even teeth, or pair a ram and a ewe that both have desirable dark ears to increase the chance that their offspring will have dark ears.
At the beginning of October, our vet conducts breeding soundness exams on our rams. We are trying to ensure that the rams with the best chance of successfully breeding are put in with ewes. If a ram produced a lot of lambs with us in the last year, we might skip a year to avoid having too many half-siblings in our flock. We also designate one or two “back-up rams,” who will be put in at the end of breeding season to ensure all our ewes are pregnant.
Next, we set up breeding groups. We compare our sheep’s registrations and genetics for the last two generations prevent inbreeding. Breeding groups are usually one ram for four to seven ewes. The gestation period for Leicester Longwools is just over five months, so rams are put out with the ewes in mid-October. This allows for lambing to begin in mid-March, just as the weather is warming up and grass is starting to grow.
In December, we remove the rams from the breeding groups, combine our ewes into one or two groups depending on how many we have, and place them with our back-up rams for a few weeks. In January, we have another vet visit to check on our ewes, including ultrasounds to estimate due dates and try to determine which ewes will have twins. Over the next few months, we monitor the ewes’ weights to make sure they are staying healthy.
Pregnant ewes are shorn in February before they lamb. Shearing ewes before lambing benefits us and the sheep. It keeps their wool cleaner and makes it easier for us to see the ewes’ body condition and track their pregnancy. It also encourages the ewes to get up to seek food and water and lose some excess weight, which makes it easier to carry the lambs comfortably. As the ewes near the end of their pregnancies, we bring them to the main stables for lambing. Lambs are kept for several days to ensure they are healthy, and then we take them to a pasture with their moms.
After the lambs are born, we wait a few months for their wool to grow out before shearing. The rest of the flock is shorn in April and May, but we wait until the end of the summer to shear the lambs. Once the lambs have been shorn, we send the wool to Spinning, Weaving, and Dyeing shop for processing.
For the 2022 season, we have had 18 lambs - 7 girls (ewes) and 11 boys (rams). There were six sets of twins, and all the lambs are one to two months old.
In the Historic Area, the lambs can be found across from the Governor's Palace pasture, and another at the Nassau pasture, across the street from the art museum. These two groups are moved between adjacent pastures, so you won't have to do much hunting to find them!
Anna Rinehart is an Apprentice Livestock Husbander at Colonial Williamsburg. In her spare time, she enjoys knitting, baking, and spoiling her bearded dragon.
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