Skip to main content Accessibility help

Development and validation of on-farm behavioural scoring systems to assess birth assistance and lamb vigour

  • S. M. Matheson (a1), J. A. Rooke (a1), K. McIlvaney (a1), M. Jack (a1), S. Ison (a1), L. Bünger (a1) and C. M. Dwyer (a1)...


Lamb mortality remains a significant welfare and economic issue for sheep production. Lamb survival is to a degree dependent upon an easy delivery and the expression of appropriate behaviours from both mother and offspring, such as rapid standing, udder seeking and sucking by the lamb. Genetic solutions have the potential to improve birth assistance and lamb behaviour but large amounts of data are needed. Therefore, to achieve this objective, simple, proxy methods (scoring systems) were developed to quantify the level of birth difficulties and lamb vigour on farm. In the first study, detailed historical behavioural data from 1156 lambs (Scottish Blackface and Suffolk (S)) were analysed to develop criteria for 3 scores: birth assistance, lamb vigour and sucking assistance. The birth assistance score was developed by analysing the relationships between birth presentation and intervention levels, and intervention level and labour length. Lambs with abnormal birth positions required more assistance than normally presented lambs and lambs with long labours required more and greater assistance than those with short labours. Lamb vigour score was developed by analysing the latencies for the lamb to first perform specific behaviours; more vigorous lambs reach landmark behaviours faster than low vigour lambs. The sucking assistance score was developed from the relationship between the latency to suck successfully and assistance level, where lambs that were slow to suck required more assistance than lambs that were quick to suck. In the second study, the behaviour scoring systems (5-point categorical scales) were validated using a commercial flock of 80 twin-bearing crossbred ewes mated with either Texel (T) or S sires by simultaneously recording scores and the latency to perform specific landmark behaviours (i.e. to stand, seek the udder and suck). The vigour scores (recorded at 5 min of age) were compared with the latency from birth to standing and showed that lambs with lower (better) vigour scores were faster to stand after birth than those with higher scores. The sucking assistance scores were compared with the latency from birth to sucking, and showed that lambs with lower sucking assistance scores are quicker to suck than those with high scores. These results showed that the scoring systems could provide a practical and reliable assessment of birth assistance and lamb behaviour on farm and were sufficiently sensitive to discriminate vigour levels between lambs sired by either S or T rams.


Corresponding author


Hide All
Afolayan, RA, Fogarty, NM, Gilmour, AR, Ingham, VM, Gaunt, GM, Cummins, LJ 2008. Reproductive performance and genetic parameters in first cross ewes from different maternal genotypes. Journal of Animal Science 86, 804814.
Agricultural and Food Research Council (AFRC) 1993. Energy and protein requirements of ruminants. An advisory manual prepared by the AFRC Technical Committee on Responses to Nutrients. CAB International, Wallingford, UK.
Alexander, G, Stevens, D, Bradley, LR 1988. Maternal behaviour in ewes following caesarian section. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 19, 273277.
Alexander, G, Stevens, D, Bradley, LR 1990. Intensive observations during lambing in a Goiter-affected flock, with special reference to behavior of lambs. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 30, 749757.
Binns, SH, Cox, IJ, Rizvi, S, Green, LE 2002. Risk factors for lamb mortality on UK sheep farms. Preventive Veterinary Medicine 52, 287303.
Borg, RC, Notter, DR, Kott, RW 2009. Phenotypic and genetic associations between lamb growth traits and adult ewe body weights in western range sheep. Journal of Animal Science 87, 35063514.
Brien, FD, Hebart, ML, Hocking-Edwards, JE, Greeff, JC, Hart, KW, Refshauge, G, Gaunt, GM, Behrendt, R, Thomson, K, Hinch, GN, Geenty, GN, Van der Werf, JHJ 2009. Genetics of lamb survival: preliminary studies of the Information Nucleas flock. In Proceeding of the Association for the Advancement of Animal Breeding and Genetics, Barossa Valley, South Australia, pp. 108–111.
Cloete, SWP, Scholtz, AJ, Gilmour, AR, Olivier, JJ 2002. Genetic and environmental effects on lambing and neonatal behaviour of Dormer and SA Mutton Merino lambs. Livestock Production Science 78, 183193.
Dwyer, CM 2003. Behavioural development in the neonatal lamb: effect of maternal and birth-related factors. Theriogenology 59, 10271050.
Dwyer, CM 2008a. The welfare of the neonatal lamb. Small Ruminant Research 76, 3141.
Dwyer, CM 2008b. Genetic and physiological determinants of maternal behaviour and lamb survival: implications for low input sheep management. Journal of Animal Science 86, E246E258.
Dwyer, CM, Lawrence, AB 2005a. Frequency and cost of human intervention at lambing: an interbreed comparison. Veterinary Record 157, 101104.
Dwyer, CM, Lawrence, AB 2005b. A review of the behavioural and physiological adaptations of hill and lowland breeds of sheep that favour lamb survival. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 92, 235260.
Dwyer, CM, Lawrence, AB, Bishop, SC 2001. The effects of selection for lean tissue content on maternal and neonatal lamb behaviours in Scottish Blackface sheep. Animal Science 72, 555571.
Dwyer, CM, Lawrence, AB, Brown, HE, Simm, G 1996. Effect of ewe and lamb genotype on gestation length, lambing ease and neonatal behaviour of lambs. Reproduction, Fertility and Development 8, 11231129.
Fisher, M 2003. New Zealand farmer narratives of the benefits of reduced human intervention during lambing. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 16, 7790.
Gonyou, HW, Stookey, JM 1985. Behavior of parturient ewes in group-lambing pens with and without cubicles. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 14, 163171.
Greeff, JC, Safari, E, Fogarty, NM, Hopkins, DL, Brien, FD, Atkins, KD, Mortimer, SI, van der Werf, JHJ 2008. Genetic parameters for carcass and meat quality traits and their relationships to liveweight and wool production in hogget Merino rams. Journal of Animal Breeding and Genetics 125, 205215.
Haughey, KG 1993. Perinatal lamb mortality. Irish Veterinary Journal 46, 928.
Janssens, S, Vandepitte, W 2004. Genetic parameters for body measurements and linear type traits in Belgian Bleu du Maine, Suffolk and Texel sheep. Small Ruminant Research 54, 1324.
Macfarlane, JM, Matheson, SM, Dwyer, CM 2009. Genetic parameters for birth difficulty, lamb vigour and lamb sucking ability in Suffolk sheep. In UFAW International Symposium 2009: Darwinian selection, selective breeding and the welfare of animals, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK.
Maxa, J, Norberg, E, Berg, P, Pedersen, J 2007. Genetic parameters for growth traits and litter size in Danish Texel, Shropshire, Oxford Down and Suffolk. Small Ruminant Research 68, 312317.
Noldus, LPJJ, Trienes, RJH, Hendriksen, AHM, Jansen, H, Jansen, RG 2000. The Observer Video-Pro: new software for the collection, management, and presentation of time-structured data from videotapes and digital media files. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, and Computers 32, 197206.
Nowak, R, Porter, RH, Lèvy, F, Orgeur, P, Schaal, B 2000. Role of mother–young interactions in the survival of offspring in domestic mammals. Reviews of Reproduction 5, 153163.
Nsoso, SJ, Young, MJ, Beatson, PR 2000. A review of carcass conformation in sheep: assessment, genetic control and development. Small Ruminant Research 35, 8996.
Owens, JL, Bindon, BM, Edey, TN, Piper, LR 1985. Behaviour at parturition and lamb survival of Booroola Merino sheep. Livestock Production Science 13, 359372.
Poindron, P, Soto, R, Romeyer, A 1997. Decrease of response to social separation in preparturient ewes. Behavioural Processes 40, 4551.
Safari, E, Fogarty, NM, Gilmour, AR 2005. A review of genetic parameter estimates for wool, growth, meat and reproduction traits in sheep. Livestock Production Science 92, 271289.
Sawalha, RM, Conington, J, Brotherstone, S, Villanuava, B 2007. Analyses of lamb survival of Scottish Blackface sheep. Animal 1, 151157.
Snowder, GD, Knight, AD, Van Vleck, LD, Bromley, CM, Kellom, TR 2001. Usefulness of subjective ovine milk scores: I. Associations with range ewe characteristics and lamb production. Journal of Animal Science 79, 811818.
Spear-Smith, J, Brien, JF, Grafe, M, Allrich, R, Reynolds, JD 2000. Chronic ethanol exposure during late gestation produces behavioral anomalies in neonatal lambs. Neurotoxicology and Teratology 22, 205212.
Speijers, MHM, Carson, AF, Dawson, LER, Irwin, D, Gordon, AW 2010. Effects of sire breed on ewe dystocia, lamb survival and weaned lamb output in hill sheep systems. Animal 4, 486496.


Development and validation of on-farm behavioural scoring systems to assess birth assistance and lamb vigour

  • S. M. Matheson (a1), J. A. Rooke (a1), K. McIlvaney (a1), M. Jack (a1), S. Ison (a1), L. Bünger (a1) and C. M. Dwyer (a1)...


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed