Freemartins….or no?

Several years ago I learned about a phenomenon that occurs in cattle wherein the heifer (female) calf out of a set of male/female twins will almost always be sterile.  She is either born without ovaries, or with non-functioning ovaries and although outwardly she appears female, she will often behave rather masculinely. Last year our flock of sheep consisted of a ram and three ewes, so we anticipated at least three lambs.  However only two of the ewes produced lambs leading us to wonder if the third ewe had miscarried or was sterile.  It was not until a few weeks ago that in researching something else, I stumbled upon a reference to the freemartin syndrome in goats and sheep and learned that it happens “occasionally” in both.  A lightbulb went on.  We purchased the three ewes knowing very little about them, including whether they were the result of single or multiple births, so there was every possibility this ewe was the result of a male/female twin birthing and therefore could be a freemartin.  She does not behave with any masculinity – in fact, she is the shyest of all of them – but as I’ve watched some of the other ewes grow larger with obvious pregnancies over the past few weeks, and watched their udders slowly develop, I gave up looking for the same signs in this ewe, believing her to be infertile. Until last night.  While they were grazing I caught a glimpse of her vulva as she lifted her tail for a second, and it was noticeably pink even from my distance.  So while graining I determined to check for signs of udder development.  She made that easy for me when the time came, getting down on her knees, butt in the air.  I wasn’t certain but thought – maybe – her udder was slightly less flat than it was a few weeks ago when we trimmed hooves.  Maybe. I reported to HWA that our freemartin might in fact be pregnant, though she clearly wasn’t anywhere close to delivery.  We’ve been on kid watch with our goat doe for several weeks now and feel sorry for her carrying an udder the size of a basketball around with her.  We have two other ewes with well-developed udders as well. This morning I checked the flock at 6:30am as I do every morning, and even before I got to the pasture, I heard a new little voice bleating.  To my astonishment, when I got to the gate, I saw a very newborn lamb – still soaking wet – lying next to……the suspected freemartin.  Who just last night I noticed for the first time might be starting to develop an udder. No pictures yet.  This ewe really is skittish and moves away any time I try to approach.  I’ve not even been able to determine if the newest member of our flock is a ram or ewe lamb yet.  Either way, we shall call it “Surprise”.



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