Maternal care is provided in response to cues from the offspring. The role of offspring stimuli in determining the quality of maternal care was assessed using the sheep (Ovis aries) as a model. The effects of variation in lamb behaviour on the expression of maternal behaviour in a hill (Scottish Blackface) and a lowland (Suffolk) breed of ewe was examined by embryo transfer of single embryos between the two breeds to give the four possible combinations of ewe and lamb. Labour was significantly shorter for both breeds of ewe when delivering Blackface lambs than Suffolk lambs. Blackface lambs were also significantly more active than the Suffolk lambs in the first 3 days after birth; there was no effect of maternal breed. Despite these differences in both length of labour and lamb activity at birth with lamb breed, the behaviours of the ewe associated with the onset of maternal care (e.g. licking the lamb, allowing the lamb to the udder, absence of aggressive behaviours) were unaffected by the breed of lamb. Suffolk ewes, however, were more likely to show an aversive reaction to their lamb, spent less time licking the lamb and were more likely to move as the lamb approached the udder. There was a significant influence of ewe breed on lamb sucking behaviour. Suffolk ewes received significantly more sucking attempts than Blackface ewes from both breeds of lamb. A higher sucking rate on Suffolk ewes continued over the first 3 days after birth. Other behaviours, such as playing, were specific to lamb breed and not affected by ewe behaviour at this time. These data suggest that offspring behaviour had no effect on the onset of bonding behaviours of the ewe. Neonatal lamb activity was also largely independent of the behaviour of their dam. However, sucking behaviour of the lamb was modified by ewe behaviour and this may affect the strength of the bond between ewe and lamb.