Maternal behaviour and lamb survival: from neuroendocrinology to practical application

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Parental care promotes offspring survival and, for livestock species, this care is provided solely by the mother. Maternal behaviour in the sheep has been exceptionally well-studied compared with other species and many of the underpinning biological processes leading to the expression of maternal care are known. In this review the current state of play with regard to the biology of maternal care will be reviewed, and its application to provide practical solutions to reduce lamb mortality considered. For maternal care to be elicited at birth the ewe requires elevated circulating oestradiol in late gestation, which stimulates the expression of oxytocin receptors in both peripheral and central areas (particularly the hypothalamic and limbic areas of the brain). At birth stretching of the vaginocervical canal elicits a spinal reflex which triggers the release of oxytocin primarily from neurones within the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus. Oxytocin release causes an increase in the neurotransmitters noradrenaline, acetylcholine, glutamate and γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the olfactory bulb, and other brain regions important for maternal behaviour. Finally, sensory cues provided by the lamb, in particular the amniotic fluids surrounding it, lead to the expression of maternal behaviours (licking, low-pitched bleats, acceptance of the lamb at the udder and suckling). This allows the expression of the two facets of maternal behaviour in the ewe: nurturance of the young and maternal selectivity, whereby a specific olfactory memory for the ewes own lamb is formed and the expression of maternal care is restricted to this lamb. Variation in the expression of maternal care has been demonstrated in primiparous ewes compared with multiparous, in different sheep genotypes, with undernutrition, stress in pregnancy, following a difficult delivery, and may occur with variation in ewe temperament. An understanding of the importance of the timing of various events in late pregnancy and during parturition, as well as the factors that can disrupt these events, can help to design management activities to minimise risks to the successful onset of maternal behaviour. Management practices that work with the biology of the ewe will be the most successful in ensuring that maternal care is expressed, so improving the welfare of the ewe and lamb, and the profitability of the farm.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)102 - 112
Number of pages11
Issue number1
Publication statusPrint publication - Jan 2014

Bibliographical note



  • Maternal behaviour
  • Neonatal survival
  • Oestradiol
  • Oxytocin
  • Sheep


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