(Written the day after my lambing placement)
So I have just returned for what has been an extraordinary fortnight of lambing. This was my first time even handling sheep so I was straight into the deep end dealing with over 900 ewes! I lived at Home Farm in Staffordshire with the wonderful MacKellar family, who very kindly allowed me to board and share meal time with them.
The family originally showed cattle and James and Isobel met as friendly rivals in the showing world. Over 25 years ago they found the opportunity to rent the stunning estate, where James made the monumental decision to branch off from the family farm and he and Isobel set up their own livestock business. Farmer James built up the flock and ran the business alongside his wife Isobel , until more recent years where their son Bryce decided to pursue a main role in the business. Bryce chose this career path based on a childhood passion for sheep. James and Isobel still play a big part in the handy work; James is the semi-retired lamb-bourghini driver (or at least that’s what I called it) and Isobel is hot on tea duty and chief straw bale distributor.
The first task I was assigned upon arrival was bottle feeding the lambs, and already I felt elated towards the experience. The bottle fed lambs were cade/orphaned lambs who were usually taken away from their mothers either because she could not provide for them nutritionally (especially in a triplet or quad ewe) or they were being rejected by their mothers. These cades would receive a formulation of the whey – based milk source ProviMilk Shepherdess Ewe Milk Replacer with warm water at a 200g to 1L ratio. Throughout the experience the cades were fed at regular times throughout the day and checked on extensively between daily roles.
Bryce initially found that a lot of lambs were falling ill or even dying due to watery mouth/ rattle belly. This is a disease is most commonly in neonates between 12 – 36 hours old and can cause previously healthly lambs to become lethargic, limp, disinterested in suckling and dull. Unfortunately this would often lead to lambs dying. Bryce quickly deduced the epidemic to be caused by the ewe milk quality. He felt that confusion in tup markings alongside quite inaccurate ultrasound recordings had delayed ewes receiving the correct nutrition for the lambs they were carrying and thus colostrum deprivation for many lambs. This finding was fuel for the need for imminent attention to detail in checking each birthing pen. Several times I raced from pens with lambs in arms due to spotting profuse salivation, as this is a sure sign of the disease. Due to this very prevalent epidemic all lambs were then given Spectam oral solution within at least ten minutes. This contains Spectinomycin (dhydrochloride pentahydrate) which was an antimicrobial solution specifically to control E.coli enteritis.
Another prevalent problem in neonate lambs was hypothermia. This again may have been due to the insufficient level of nutrition provided in early gestation that had also been attributed as the cause of watery mouth in the lambing flock. These lambs were not getting the quality of colostrum required for sufficient metabolic heat production, and as they got colder this limited energy reserve was being exerted at an exponential rate (leading to fatalities were they not seen to quick enough.) I also saw some more unusual conditions such as entropion, and a congenital defect causing a lamb to have no rectal opening. The farmer more recently began vaccinating lambs with Scabivax for Orf; as this zoonotic disease can cause very painful lesions on the face, hands and forearm. When the ewe had bonded with her newly born lambs, we applied iodine to the open navals. Before bonding they could not successfully be moved to smaller pens, but this consequently left neonates at risk of infection from pathogens in the large lambing pens. Applying iodine dries up the naval, which eventually falls off the lambs. This prevented naval ill, which may have otherwise developed into ascending infection to involve the body cavity, liver, and possibly more generalised infection to involve the joint, meninges (brain), lungs, kidneys, and endocardium (heart valves.)
I also witnessed several problems in the ewes, such as a case of mastitis. On my second day in the barn I saw what appeared to be the uterine horns and or the bladder bulging out behind her. I had seen articles and images prior which led me to believe it was a early stage of a vaginal prolapse. This was in a mule with weaker abdominal and kegel muscle and thus little support on the pelvic floor, especially when carrying triplets. I disinfected my hands, put on an arm length glove and sheepishly grabbed the crook, harnessing my responsibility to ensure that the ewe was put into a safer position. I grabbed a harness and hoped that my practice with shoe laces around my desk chair would be sufficient in doing the real job. I caught the mule ewe and settled her away from the bustle of the flock before handling her. I started to bundle up the protruding organs and at this moment I knew I had to face the unknown. Applying lube to the glove, I slowly eased the tissues back in before securely fastening the harness around her body. Luckily this was detected early or else she would have needed veterinary attention such as Buhner suturing.
It was incredibly fulfilling nursing limp and dull lambs back to peppy and cheeky mischief makers! A lot of the cade lambs remained being hand reared on powder milk, then pellets, then eventually grass. For some of the stronger lambs, and should the recipient ewe have plenty of milk, we were able to foster them. This was often after the loss of one of the ewe’s own lambs. We fostered the cade lamb by rubbing the foetal membranes and bodily juices from the deceased lamb onto the cade lamb. This way, along with the strong hormonal influences after giving birth, the ewe accepted the cade lamb as her own. This not only benefitted the lamb in receiving a natural upbringing, but also allowed for an increased market value as cade lambs received less than lambs naturally raised.
I think true to the name the farm was a warm and welcoming home and for the duration of my stay I felt like part of the family. I cannot thank the family enough for allowing me, with no prior experience with sheep, to learn on the job and gain a very medically but also industrially based experience. I would love to do the experience again and attribute a lot of my desire to studying veterinary medicine to this placement.