The development of uterine oxytocin receptors is an important regulatory step in the initiation of labour. Paracrine production of oxytocin by uterine and placental tissues may also be involved in some species. Placentome, intercotyledonary endometrium, myometrium and fetal membranes were collected from 3-5 ewes each, at regular intervals throughout pregnancy and from eight ewes during labour. Localization of mRNA encoding oxytocin and its receptor was by in situ hybridization; oxytocin peptide concentrations were measured by radioimmunoassay and oxytocin receptor concentrations were measured by autoradiography and radioreceptor assay. In the intercotyledonary endometrium, mRNA encoding the oxytocin receptor was located in the luminal epithelium only. Both the epithelial and myometrial receptors were detected at low concentrations from the fourth week of gestation onwards, with a major increase associated with the onset of labour. In the placentomes, oxytocin receptors were localized to a stromal capsule surrounding the placental villi. Expression in this region was maximal in mid-gestation, declining in the second half of pregnancy and remaining low during labour. Cervical oxytocin receptors were detected at low concentrations in the epithelium and the muscular/connective tissue layers from day 22 of pregnancy onwards. There was no evidence for the local uterine production of oxytocin in the ewe; mRNA encoding oxytocin was undetectable and oxytocin concentrations were always < 23 pg g-1 wet mass of tissue. These results suggest that regulation of the timing of oxytocin receptor development varies between the different tissue types, despite a similar steroidal background. The receptors in the luminal epithelium are probably associated with the ability of exogenous oxytocin to induce the release of PGF(2α) throughout most of pregnancy. The increase in receptors in both the intercotyledonary endometrium and myometrium at term suggest an involvement in labour, whereas their role in caruncular stroma in mid-pregnancy is unknown.