In sheep, central oxytocin release at parturition induces maternal behaviour which is thought to be mediated by changes in the expression of central oxytocin receptors. The distribution, effects of parturition, previous maternal experience and hormonal status on the distribution of an oxytocin receptor was investigated using immunocytochemistry and in situ hybridization. In ewes with no previous maternal experience, parturition induced significant increases in oxytocin receptor mRNA expression in the anterior olfactory nucleus, medial preoptic area, ventromedial hypothalamus, lateral septum, medial amygdala, bed nucleus of the stria terminalis and diagonal band of Broca. In maternally experienced ewes, parturition induced additional increases in two areas, the paraventricular nucleus and the Islands of Calleja. The changes in progesterone and oestrogen that occur during late pregnancy and parturition appear to contribute to increases in expression in the anterior olfactory nucleus, Islands of Calleja, medial preoptic area, ventromedial hypothalamus, bed nucleus of the stria terminalis and diagonal band of Broca, but not in the paraventricular nucleus, lateral septum and medial amygdala. These results demonstrate that progesterone and oestrogen priming enhance oxytocin receptor mRNA expression in a number of regions in the olfactory system, hypothalamus and limbic brain. These effects appear to be independent of maternal experience. Parturition increases oxytocin receptor mRNA expression in all the areas influenced by hormonal priming and the lateral septum, medial amygdala and paraventricular nucleus. Maternal experience also enhances expression of oxytocin receptor mRNA in the paraventricular nucleus and the Islands of Calleja. Because the paraventricular nucleus is the main source of oxytocin release in the brain, this upgrading of autoreceptors as a result of maternal experience may serve to enhance release of this peptide in projection sites regulating maternal behaviour.