Finally it feels like the dark, cold thunderous clouds of winter are drifting away with the March winds on our farm. The winter has seemed a very long one with wet, cold, windy weather that has added many more things to be fixed on our “to do” list. The high winds managed to pull off some of the roofing sheets of our hay shed, a not so easy thing to do seeing as they were being weighed down by five tractor tyres.
Fences have come down, the polycarbonate sheets of my greenhouse went flying across the farm and the chicken run ended up in a wet, boggy, gooey mess of mud. At least everything has been fixable but at times you end up standing there thinking “where on earth do I start?”
The high winds also brought problems with our livestock. This year just before we brought our ewe’s home for lambing, we found a few of them had gone blind. On closer inspection we found on some of them that their eyes had ulcerated causing a white opaqueness as well as having red inner rims. This condition is known as Infectious keratoconjunctivitis, Contagious Ophthalmia or snow blindness is caused by adverse weather drying out the eyes causing conjunctivitis.
First signs are a “tear stained face” which isn’t always to see when you’ve got your ewes out in the field. Untreated it can cause blindness and ulcerations in the eye. It spreads at the feeding troughs when the ewes are in close proximity. Funnily enough it only affected our white faced Suffolk cross mules and not the black face X. We quarantined the blind ewes in our shed and applied Oxytectracycline ointment from the vet every day for a few days. With them contained we could make sure they had easy access to water and food which would have been difficult for them to find in our fields whilst blind. We had 12 ewes out of 110 that suffered and luckily they all recovered their sight.
We had a good lambing season with a lot of healthy doubles and triplets and I got my stripes this year for being able to lamb on my own. We did however also end up with a fair few tame lambs. You may remember from a previous article that last year I raised 8 tame lambs using the shepherdess feeder. We managed to acquire another feeder this year and luckily so as this year I am raising 17. My first was a lamb called Pumpkin who was brought to me with very little chance of survival at 10pm. She was very cold and suffering from hyperthermia. I sat with her wrapped in a blanket with the fire roaring away for a few hours before my husband returned back in from seeing the sheep. In with him came our big black bouncy enthusiastic lab called Pip.
Now Pip is a boy, named by our boys but he saw that lamb and started licking it all over. It was the kick-start that Pumpkin needed and with each slobbery dog kiss she perked up. I stayed curled up on the sofa until 4am nursing that lamb with constant feeds. She is now weaned and a lovely looking lamb! Each lamb in my nursery has a tale to why they are there. Some were of triplets where the mum couldn’t raise them all. I have one full set of triplets where we took one and then the mum died out in the field and we brought home the other two. No obvious reason why she died, she just did. One lamb came from a C section minutes old.
My dear husband tried his hardest to lamb the ewe and we ended up calling the vet out. The first lamb died and was stuck and there was nothing us and the vet could to do but kill the ewe to save the remaining lamb. My husband came in asking for the sharpest knife I had in my kitchen. He came back in with this tiny little lamb that I sat with and cried. He will never know what happened to his mum but we do and it’s a painful experience having to kill a healthy animal you’ve raised. Not all lambs are healthy. I lost two this year.
One was brought in with a broken leg from its mother standing on him and it was a kill or cure job for me. I splinted his leg back into place as it was a clean break and he was able to get around on it. Sadly the shock and the tininess of his frame meant he lasted no more than 24 hours. Another we had was a beautiful black lamb that lasted for weeks before he died. He was born rasping with a rattling sound on his chest. At first we thought it was fluid on the lungs for which we gave him antibiotics but it soon became clear it was more than that.
This is where I’ll declare my love for the internet which has proved to be a good source of information this year for the diseases, ailments and illnesses we’ve suffered. It turns out that my dear little blacky was suffering from a hole in his heart. There isn’t a cure and although he fought valiantly, as he grew the hole didn’t repair and he struggled. He grew so tired and didn’t want his milk anymore. I knew he was dying and perhaps if I had been stronger I would have ended his suffering sooner. I was relieved when he died and was finally at peace. Every year I have a lamb that affects me deeply. Blacky was that lamb.
Birth and Death; the circle of life that we see on the farm in just 24 hours. It makes you appreciate life for its fragility, and robust hopefulness. It is a beautiful wondrous and amazing gift that we get to be part of, yet the sadness is overwhelming on the ones that you didn’t save, you couldn’t save or weren’t there in that instant to save. I honestly don’t know how doctors and nurses hold themselves together so well. We’ve cried over our sheep and lambs and we only lamb 110 each year and it’s only in February and March. Doctors and nurses see thousands of patients each year, all year, and yet we’ve found our short window of labour tiring and exhausting. I have a renewed appreciation in our medical profession!
This year we’ve also suffered with Toxoplasmosis in our ewes but luckily only in the last twenty or so ewes we had left to lamb. Now Toxoplasmosis is one of the conditions that sheep can suffer that causes abortions and is also one of the reasons why pregnant women should stay away from pregnant ewes, or anyone in close contact with them, or the clothes from a person who is lambing. The other condition is called Chlamydial abortion. What Toxoplasmosis does to Ewes is; in early pregnancy they will abort and present the ewe as barren; in later pregnancy it can cause a mummified lamb and weakling siblings or still births.
We had a two of these mummified lambs and about ten ewes present as barren. It can also cause on some ewes a red staining around the tail and legs; we had two like this that always made us think they were going to give birth but they never did. Any warm blooded animal can carry the toxoplasmosis parasite, so knowing exactly where it came from is difficult. There is a vaccine that we will be giving to our ewes next year to prevent it reoccurring for fear of the whole flock aborting.
Another illness you might come across if you’re dealing with lambs is called Entropian or in turned eyelids. We’ve three lambs suffering from this at the moment. The rubbing of the eyelashes against the cornea causes severe keratitis (conjunctivitis) with ulceration and left untreated, blindness. In simple cases, such as ours it requires everting the eyelid back in place or pinching it and treating it with topical antibiotic to fight any secondary bacterial infection. Other recommendations I’ve read online suggest injecting the eyelid to cause it to puff up and stay out turned as normal. In severe cases the lambs need to see a vet to have their eyelids stapled in place.
Some of the best places I’ve found advice that is being used in practice are from farming pages on Facebook. They’re also great sources for second hand machinery and livestock such as tame lambs. Whilst in the markets tame lambs might fetch between £5 and £10, I have seen the majority of tame lambs sell for £20-25 through the Facebook Pages, some even reaching £40. When you consider the lamb milk itself is £40 a bag it sometimes makes more sense for a farmer to sell them young for good money. Our 17 lambs have gone through six bags so far already costing £200 without the addition of lamb creep.
Continuing on the cycle of life and death; I recently lent my son’s school our incubator to hatch some chicken eggs. They kindly had it PAT tested to be able to use it, and the brooder onsite. I incubated the eggs until day 18 when I took it into the school for “lock down” – the time when the cradle comes out and the eggs are in their hatching week. The pressure was on us this week as the following week was the holidays and they desperately wanted to see some chicks before the holidays started for Easter. I had already had a blip in the incubation period when our lamb lamp outside went ping and tripped the electrics.
I candled the eggs to make sure they were ok, as I had no idea how long the electrics had been off (being asleep as I was) and everything still appeared to be developing normally. To cut a long story short, the chicks started to hatch on the Thursday and the whole school was delighted and excited to be able to watch the chicks arriving into the world. All the children felt proud that they had “helped” to hatch these eggs into little chick. I gave them a little talk on how it took for a broody hen or an incubator to keep the eggs warm for weeks for them to turn into chicks, so they weren’t going to have a chick fall out of their breakfast eggs.
They were worried they would be eating them! I think it’s very important to bridge the gap between communities and farming. Children should be encouraged to know what farmers do, especially as a lot of children don’t get to see many animals or the countryside. I’m always keen to give any child a new and pleasant experience about farming. They are the new generation and it’s important they understand where their food comes from.
On the same day as the chicks hatched, I also had to dispatch four cockerels. I can’t bear to kill them as chicks, so I promise to give them 6-8 months of free range, good life before culling. It is unfortunate that I cannot rehome them but there are so many cockerels out there for sale for the same reason that there wouldn’t be a place for them either. It was a hard decision to make as I have reared them from birth, sometimes even hand reared them. I can carry a fair few cockerels in my stock but I had 9 and one day this week I found my dear little lavender Pekin bald on her back and bleeding from their rough handling.
Whilst I could pen her on her own, I had to consider my options for her long term safety and that of my other hens. I have quite a few girls but I’m due to sell some of them to new homes and they really are my priority over cockerels. My neighbour kindly dispatches them for me, and even my husband came up and learnt how which is a positive thing as there comes a time when you have to dispatch ill and injured animals in kindness to prevent furthering suffering. I didn’t escape completely from getting involved as I had to help pluck them. If I’m going to rear them and kill them,
I have to be strong enough to get involved somewhere along the line and waste not, want not these birds will be ending up on our dinner plate. I can at least eat them knowing that I did give them a far better life than any of the lives lived by those chickens that sit in the supermarket cooler sections. It’s not easy to reconcile with yourself sometimes that you rear animals as product, that one day you’re raising babies that you cuddle and care for and then months, or a year or two down the line you’re selling them at market or bringing them home for dinner.
I can easily see why people are vegetarian but I try to think that we fight our little corner in the world by giving them the best we could give them. There are so many people out there who do not care about their livestock but try to practice care and compassion. As my husband says; “The day we stop caring about our animals, is the day we stop farming”. What else can I offer to you that perhaps rather than the mass meat you buy at the supermarket that is reared in extreme circumstances of producing a product for the mass markets, buy local, buy the love we put into them.
So as a last thought for you; we cannot fight nor control the cycle of life. Birth and death happens, what we can control is how we live our lives and how we affect the lives of others, both human and animal. Life is a fragile and beautiful thing that should be treasured no matter what it is or where it has come from. Be kind.
Until next time my Lovelies…. xxxx