It is common practice in Australian agriculture to remove the tails of lambs to prevent infection and to castrate males to prevent behavioural problems and unwanted reproduction. We have studied the pain and stress responses to these interventions by measuring changes in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and beta-endorphin levels. Further, we have evaluated the effects of prenatal exposure to dexamethasone, which is known to affect the developing HPA axis. In control animals that had received prenatal saline treatment, plasma cortisol and adrenocorticotrophin (ACTH) levels increased after the interventions in both females and males. Plasma beta-endorphin levels also increased after the interventions, but the responses were less consistent. Prenatal dexamethasone exposure early in pregnancy (dexamethasone 0.14 mg kg(-1) ewe weight injection commenced on day 40 of pregnancy for four consecutive intramuscular injections at 12-hourly intervals) blunted the cortisol response to tail docking in female offspring, but not to combined tail docking and castration in males. It had no effect on ACTH or beta-endorphin responses in either sex. These findings describe the stress responses to these common agricultural interventions and suggest that long-term development of the HPA axis in females is altered by prenatal exposure to dexamethasone.