Wool growth, staple strength and fibre diameter are reduced during pregnancy and lactation. This may be due to the increased requirement for protein for foetal growth, udder development and milk production causing a lack of amino acids for wool. Responses in wool production, ewe live weight, lamb birth weight and growth, plasma amino acids and levels of cortisol, insulin and growth hormone were measured when different sources of protein were offered. Either lupin seed (L), fish meal (F) or formaldehyde-treated egg white (E) were included in an oaten hay-based diet offered during the final 3 weeks of pregnancy and first 3 weeks of lactation. Provision of diets containing E or F resulted in significant (P < 0·001) increases in wool growth and trends towards increased staple strength (4 to 6 N/ktex) and clean fleece weights (0·17 to 0·38 kg) compared with the sheep given L. Feeding the E diet increased the concentration of cystine in plasma and sulphur in wool in late pregnancy. Feeding the F diet increased the concentrations of arginine, histidine, lysine and threonine in plasma in early lactation. Ewes given E had higher circulating insulin and increased insulin resistance, compared with sheep given L, on 2 of the 4 days of sampling during pregnancy and lactation during the treatment period. There were no treatment effects on lamb birth weight or growth but ewes given the E diet were significantly (P < 0·05, 3·3 kg) heavier than the ewes given L after 3 weeks of lactation. The results indicate that a lack of protein available for absorption in the small intestine causes reduced wool growth during late pregnancy and early lactation. Wool growth is more sensitive to a reduced protein supply than foetal growth, maternal weight or milk production.