Pregnant ewes were injected with either the antiprogesterone, RU 486 (4 mg kg−1 body weight, i.m.; n = 5), 3000 iu relaxin (i.m.; n = 9), or diluent (n = 8) at 12:00 h on days 144 and 145, to determine its effect on progesterone and relaxin secretion, and on induction of lambing. RU 486 induced earlier lambing (P < 0.01) compared with diluent treatment, but relaxin treatment did not significantly reduce the interval to parturition. Mean injection–lambing intervals were 31 ± 2, 109 ± 23 and 121 ± 27 h for the RU 486, relaxin and diluent groups, respectively. There was no incidence of difficult birth (dystocia); all lambs were vigorous at birth; and placenta delivery was rapid (within 207 min) with RU 486 and relaxin treatments compared with diluent treated controls. Plasma progesterone concentrations averaged 11 ng ml−1 during the pretreatment period for all animals. RU 486 had a biphasic effect on progesterone concentrations, causing an initial increase (P < 0.05) within 2 h, and then an abrupt drop (P < 0.01) to 6 ng ml−1 by 18:00 h on day 145. Progesterone concentrations remained consistently lower (P < 0.05) in relaxin-treated ewes than in diluent-treated controls from days 144 to 147 and then began a steady decrease to 4 ng ml−1 on the day of parturition (days 149 and 150) in both groups. Immunoreactive relaxin concentrations in control ewes increased (P < 0.05) from 0.6 ng ml−1 to a peak of 3.9 ng ml−1 on day 146, but they were low (0.8 ng ml−1) at the time of parturition (day 150). RU 486 treatment abruptly increased (P < 0.05) circulating relaxin concentration, but the amplitude of this antepartum surge was greatly attenuated compared with that of diluent treated controls. Peak RU 486 concentrations in plasma were 7 and 9 ng ml−1 within 2 h after first and second i.m. injection of the hormone, respectively, and stabilized at 4 ng ml−1 at the time of induced lambing (day 145). The results reveal that an antepartum relaxin surge occurs in sheep 4 days before normal parturition (day 150), but that RU 486 greatly attenuates the relaxin surge and abruptly decreases circulating progesterone concentration with an induced parturition (day 145). The results indicate that RU 486 can precisely control the time of parturition in sheep in late pregnancy without detrimental effects of dystocia, retention of placenta or delayed postpartum fertility.