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The importance of the gestation period for welfare of lambs: maternal stressors and lamb vigour and wellbeing

  • J. A. ROOKE (a1), G. ARNOTT (a2) (a3), C. M. DWYER (a2) and K. M. D. RUTHERFORD (a2)

The prenatal period is of critical importance in defining how individuals respond to their environment throughout life. Stress experienced by pregnant females has been shown to have detrimental effects on offspring behaviour, health and productivity. The sheep has been used extensively as a model species to inform human studies. However, in the farmed environment, the consequences for the lamb of the imposition of prenatal stresses upon the ewe have received much less attention. The stressors that pregnant ewes are most frequently exposed to include sub-optimal nutrition and those related to housing, husbandry and environment which may be either acute or chronic. A systematic review of the literature was adopted to identify material which had production-relevant maternal stressors and lamb outcomes. The current review focussed upon the lamb up to weaning around the age of 100 days and the results clearly demonstrate that stressors imposed upon the ewe have implications for offspring welfare and performance. Maternal under-nutrition (UN) in the last third of pregnancy consistently impaired lamb birth-weight and subsequent vigour and performance, while earlier UN had a variable effect on performance. Feeding the ewe above requirements did not have positive effects on lamb performance and welfare. Social and husbandry stressors such as transport, shearing, mixing and physiological treatments designed to mimic acute stress which would be considered disadvantageous for the ewe had positive or neutral effects for the lamb, highlighting a potential conflict between the welfare of the ewe and her lamb. This review also identified considerable gaps in knowledge, particularly in respect of the impact of disease upon the ewe during pregnancy and interactions between different stressors and the responses of ewe and lamb.

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