Although it is established that the fetus can successfully withstand a single, acute hypoxaemic challenge during gestation, little is known about what effects prevailing adverse intrauterine conditions might have on the fetal response to acute hypoxaemia. The aims of this study were therefore: (1) to characterise the effects of prevailing and sustained hypoxaemia, acidaemia or hypoglycaemia on the fetal cardiovascular responses to an episode of acute hypoxaemia; and (2) to determine the effects of these adverse intrauterine conditions on mechanisms mediating these cardiovascular responses. Thirty-three Welsh Mountain sheep fetuses were chronically instrumented (1–2 % halothane) between 117 and 125 days of gestation (term is ca 145 days) with amniotic and vascular catheters and with a transit-time flow probe around a femoral artery. The animals were divided retrospectively into four groups based upon post-surgical, sustained, basal blood oxygen (chronically hypoxaemic; Pa,O2, 17.3 ± 0.5 mmHg; n= 8), glucose (chronically hypoglycaemic; blood glucose, 0.49 ± 0.03 mmol l−1; n= 6) and acid-base (chronically acidaemic; pHa, 7.25 ± 0.01; n= 5) status. Values for compromised fetuses were −2 s.d. from a group of control (n= 14) fetuses. At 130 ± 4 days, a 1 h episode of acute, isocapnic hypoxaemia (9 % O2 in N2, to reduce carotid Pa,O2 to 12 ± 1 mmHg) was induced in all fetuses by reducing the maternal inspired O2 fraction (FI,O2). Fetal cardiovascular variables were recorded at 1 s intervals throughout the experimental protocol and arterial blood samples taken at appropriate intervals for biophysical (blood gases, glucose, lactate) and endocrine (catecholamines, vasopressin, cortisol, ACTH) measures. During acute hypoxaemia all fetuses elicited hypertension, bradycardia and femoral vasoconstriction. However, prevailing fetal compromise altered the cardiovascular and endocrine responses to a further episode of acute hypoxaemia, including: (1) enhanced pressor and femoral vasoconstriction; (2) greater increments in plasma noradrenaline and vasopressin during hypoxaemia; and (3) basal upward resetting of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis function. Only chronically hypoxaemic fetuses had significantly elevated basal concentrations of noradrenaline and enhanced chemoreflex function during acute hypoxaemia. These data show that prevailing adverse intrauterine conditions alter the capacity of the fetus to respond to a subsequent episode of acute hypoxaemia; however, the partial contributions of hypoxaemia, acidaemia or hypoglycaemia to mediating these responses can vary.