Monday, 19 April 2010

Wool and Flies

I thought a photo of wool would be more appealing than one of flies - in this case blowflies. As the weather has warmed up, attack from these fiendish creatures becomes ever more likely. They have a passion for laying their eggs in long lustrous wool, such as that worn by my Cotswolds, and they are especially attracted to a sheep with a dirty back-end. Unfortunately as the rich spring grass has had a dramatic laxative effect, this has meant hours today have been spent cleaning up numerous back-ends by trimming off soiled wool with sharp shears, and then spraying the sheep with a pour-on in this case Vetrazyne. I am now hoping the foul flies will stay away.

Most flies are annoying but pretty harmless - however the blowfly is a sheep's worst enemy as they lay their eggs deep in the wool, and when the eggs hatch (which can take only a few hours)the maggots excrete enzymes which turn living flesh to soup which they then drink. If undiscovered these maggots can work their way right inside the sheep, which will eventually die from blood poisoning, or other complications such as septic shock.

It is quite horrifying just how many maggots can infest a sheep in a very short time and how difficult they are to find. In all my time as a flock keeper this has only happened to me twice - in both cases the fly-strike was spotted early and the sheep survived. Now I always spend a short time each day just watching my flock. If any sheep is rubbing themselves excessively against a fence, twitching their tail, or generally stretching their legs and looking uncomfortable, or most tellingly, they appear to have a patch of wet fleece, then I catch it and examine it extremely carefully. If I still cannot see anything, which believe me is possible, and yet think that all is not well, then I spray the suspect area with Crovect (the only pour-on which acts as a treatment and a preventative) - I can safely say that if there are any maggots hiding deep in the sprayed area, they will soon be falling out of the wool.

The adult sheep will be shorn soon - probably halfway through May - and then they will be safe until their fleece regrows to about an inch long when I will treat them again with a pour-on. The lambs will be sprayed this week, and then again in eight weeks time - or sooner if we get a spell of very wet weather which may wash the pour-on out of their wool. So the message will, I hope, soon be out to any passing blowfly - You are not wanted here - PLEASE FLY ON PAST...!

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Frozen beginnings

It seems hard now to remember just how snowbound we were before lambing this year. One problem we had was keeping the pregnant ewes with access to fresh water - the troughs were frozen and the river banks were too icy for them to negotiate their way to the water's edge. It was also hard to know how much to feed them to keep their nutrition levels correct in temperatures that fell one night to -18C. Careful feeding before lambing is vital - too much food means single lambs grow so big that they get stuck, too little food and a ewe with twin or triplet lambs can get twin lamb disease which can be fatal.

We managed to avoid any disease, but would the lambs be born healthy and strong after all that cold weather? It was a great relief when the first lambs arrived, twins, and they were just perfet. At least I thought they were - their mother disagreed and rejected the ewe lamb totally. She and I argued about this for a bit, but she was adamant that she would bring up one lamb only. With no other ewe lambing in the near future I couldn't get the the lamb adopted by anyone else, so the decision was made to hand rear her and Queenford Jade is now a very healthy, happy, large and very friendly new flock member.

Lambing is now over - no more midnight panics and sleepless nights - but the barn seems strangely quiet after the dramas of the last couple of months. However it all seems worthwhile when I find a group of healthy, happy and contented lambs dozing in the sun!

Thursday, 10 December 2009

The Day of Reckoning

Yesterday I rounded up all my ewes and waited for Hugh to arrive with his scanner. Each ewe would be scanned to see if she was in lamb, and if so, he would be able to tell me how many lambs she would have, and roughly when they would arrive. The gestation period for a lamb is five months less five days - but lambs can of course arrive a little early, or occasionally a few days late - so it's only a rough guide!

It's always an anxious moment as the first ewe is scanned - once none of them were in lamb and I had to get another ram in, then found myself lambing in June when all I wanted to do was to lie in the sun eating strawberries, pretending I was at Wimbledon - as if that would ever happen...!

But this time all was well, and all but two ewes are in lamb - at least five of them will be having triplets, so as a ewe can only really look after two lambs all by herself, it looks like I'll be pretty busy wielding a bottle... but at least I won't be bored!

And then today, there was being interviewed by 'Jo In The Afternoon' at Radio Oxford - that was a very interesting experience and I hope I made some sort of sense - it is a very strange feeling chatting away in a studio, not seeing who is listening to you - probably no one - but if you were listening, I hope I didn't send you to sleep, or say something so annoying you nearly crashed into the car in front - I'm not sure if I'm going to be brave enough to 'Listen Again', but maybe I will...

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Summer Update

It has been a long time since I have been released from the lambing barn. Now the lambs have shot up and some are nearly as big as their mothers. It has been a difficult summer as after the blazing hot spell in late spring (what a distant memory that is now) the weather has been very unsettled. All farmers have found it hard and frustrating one moment to see their crops withering with drought and the next being unable to start harvesting because it keeps on raining - anyway the long and short of it is we were unable to make our hay and for the first time are experimenting with Haylage.
This involved getting an amenable Contractor in to tackle our small acreage with his HUGE machines and having cut the grass, he allowed it to dry for a day, then spun it around to dry it a little more, (but not too much as it still had to be a little green)and lastly they arrived to bale it. Once it was baled then an amazing machine came in and picked a bale at a time and turned it round wrapping it up in a material like heavyweight clingfilm. These airtight bales will now ferment a little and the result (we hope) will be delicius sweet smelling winter feed.

And now we have a whole new field to put our growing lambs in.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Ruminations from the Lambing Barn - Rejection

Today the air is silver-hazed, and the grass flares livid green against the pale yellow of the daffodils beside the drive. Everything seems to cry out that spring is really here at last, and after the dull greyness of the last few weeks, that is a relief. Spring is the word that makes people think of unfurling buds, the delicate pinks and creams of cherry blossom, and lambs playing tag in the fields.

There are so many threats to a newborn lamb. The very first danger they face after they find themselves expelled from the warm darkness of their mother’s womb, is rejection. Sheep are usually wonderful mothers who guard their babies with a fierce and protective love, but not always. Sometimes a ewe, often a ‘shearling’ ( a first time mother) may decide with unshakeable determination that this lamb which just seconds ago swam in the amniotic fluids within her, does in fact have nothing to do with her at all.

A ewe just before she gives birth will dig nests in the straw, and lick at leaking birth fluids; she is learning to know her lamb by taste and smell, while all the time she bleats plaintively as if she has already lost what has not yet been born. After the birth it is by sound and smell she will recognise her lamb, and the lamb will know her by her voice. If that chain is disrupted and maybe another ewe licks the lamb thereby changing its smell, it is possible its mother will not accept it as hers.

This photograph should be called 'Mother Love' as this old ewe stares adoringly at her newborn lamb and it is clear that her only aim for months to come will be to love and protect him.

There are ways of dealing with rejection. One is to use a delicious vanilla musk to mask the smell of the rejected and accepted twin alike and that should hopefully convince the ewe that the two are both hers. Anther traditional way is to restrain the ewe so she can eat, drink and lie down, but smell neither lamb for a few days. By that time it is hoped, she will have forgotten which one was not wanted and accept them both.

That has never worked for me and I have usually ended up with the rejected lamb as a bottle fed pet, with a name, and a long life ahead of it, which doesn’t involve freezers or sheepskin rugs – fine for a ewe lamb as she can earn her keep in the years to come with her own lambs, but hopeless for a ram lamb as only the very best can be kept or sold for breeding.

Today I released a little ram lamb’s (photo at the to of the page) impossible mother back into the main flock and have resigned myself to bottle feeding him. I will try not to name him, nor to grow too fond of him, so he will be called just Lamb. But I fear that if you visit the farm in years to come, Lamb will be a fully grown ram, still enjoying our grass and feed. Today though, he sniffed the daffodils and wondered why everyone else had a mother and an on-tap milk bar...

There is still one ewe to lamb which has been scanned as carrying a single lamb, the rest are carrying twins or triplets. If the ewe with the single lamb decides to give birth soon, then I will try to persuade her to adopt Lamb. But if she takes more than a week, then Lamb will be too big for adoption, and the best I can hope for then is to find him a friend so that while he might be motherless, he won’t be alone - he will at least have someone else to snuggle up with on a cold spring night, and to hang out with round the hay rack. I will keep you posted…

Thursday, 12 March 2009

...then along came the Cotswolds

So back to Stoneleigh and Weylode Windflower, (Windy, to her friends) who was certainly not black and white with handlebars. No, she was a much bigger, more solid sheep, with wonderful curly wool and a thick fringe of dreadlocks which hung above her large deep brown eyes. But what I really fell in love with was her white face, delicate dark nose and her turned up mouth which made her look as if she were smiling, rather like a dolphin…
Windy was a Cotswold Sheep, sometimes called The Cotswold Lion because of their wonderfully thick wool around their necks which looks just like a lion’s mane.

Brought to Britain by the Romans the Cotswolds have grazed our grass for many hundreds of years. Once there were thousands of them grazing the Cotswold Hills bringing prosperity to farmers and there their wool was traded around the world. By the late twentieth century they were facing extinction. Now there are about 1500 breeding ewes in the country - not many when you think that there are single flocks of commercial sheep which number several thousand. And as many of the Cotswold sheep are kept in the Cotswolds another outbreak of Foot and Mouth could return them to th ebrink of destruction. But that's too depressing to think of... now it's lambing time which means sleepless nights and worry and hours of sheep bleats....

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

In the beginning there were Jacobs

So to recap – my husband had no intention of any additional mowing hence the arrival of the ovine mowers… twenty Jacobs (each with a nice pair of handle bars, which I soon discovered were very useful for grabbing hold of, but extremely painful when digging you in the thigh) had duly arrived, eaten a large amount of grass, put on an extremely satisfying amount of weight and were about to head for my, and various friends’ freezers, when my husband had another helpful suggestion.
‘Why don’t we have lambs, otherwise who will eat the grass next year?’
I didn’t recognise it at the time but that was THE crossroads moment of my recent life. That was the second I should have realised what trouble another ‘Fine’ would be letting me in for… freezing nights in the fields, or in more recent times, in the barn (slightly more civilised but still not a patch on my bed), hours of staring at the back ends of sheep wondering why what I was seeing there didn’t look anything like the book described, and when all went truly pear-shaped having to phone knowledgeable, and long-suffering, friends in the middle of the night, or as a last resort receiving a visit from a charming, but exhausted, vet…
Anyway, for better or for worse, I said ‘Fine.’
So the Jacobs had their lambs and I found myself on the steepest learning curve of my life. But somehow we all got through the first and second lambing seasons reasonably well, and the damage was done - I was hooked on sheep…