The Sheep Diaries - the backstory


It is spring! And that means lambing season - an exciting time of us, as near-novices to sheep husbandry. To record our happenings, learnings and disappointments (hopefully not too many), I am starting a Sheep diaries series.

But first, let me fill in a bit of background. After moving to our Pohangina block in April last year [see Life changes], and taking a few months to set ourselves up, we decided that sheep were the way to go for us. We are on a river terrace, and our soils have a clay base, so get pretty claggy (technical term) after rain. And located as we are at the foot of the Ruahine Range, there is no shortage of rain either. Having had the neighbour's cattle on our land from time to time, we knew the land pugged quite badly and were keen to get it back into condition.

We thought sheep, being lighter on the land, were the answer. But they needed to fulfil two important conditions: they needed to be self-shedding and not be a breed susceptible to footrot. Our research suggested that Wiltshires were superior to Dorpers on this latter condition.

Knowing nothing about sheep husbandry we started off small, acquiring three one-year old ewes from over the other side of the valley in September. We had abundant grass and lots of shelter and the ewes settled in well. Unbeknownst to us, however, two of them were 'with lamb'. In early October, one ewe gave birth to a single lamb, white with black spots on her face and feet. She seemed a good size and healthy and started feeding in good time. We were absolutely stoked!

But as the next 24 hours wore on, she became more and more lethergic, flopped out listlessly on the grass. The ewe pawed at her to try to encourage her to get up. Eventually, after monitoring the situation for a few hours, I decided to intervene. I put her in front of the fire in a towel-lined box and attempted to feed her with some collustrum. She wouldn't feed. Her tongue was a dark purple colour and her eyes black. She didn't last through the night, and we buried her the next morning. (My son wrote an ode for the lamb - held in his hand in the photo below - which was buried with her.)

I was gutted about this. Our very first lamb and he had perished. I wished I'd had intervened earlier.

A few days later, it looked like we were getting a second chance. A second ewe had a baby - again white with black patches on his face and feet. A good size, healthy and feeding. This time I was watching anxiously, hour by hour. Then, several hours into his first day, I noticed the same symptoms setting in - extreme lethargy and floppyness. I brought him inside with me and tried to feed him but things just kept on going downhill. This time, even if he died, I wanted to know why. I put in the front seat of the and rushed down to the vets in Ashhurst.

I suspect it is not common for the vets to have someone burst through their doors, breathlessly, with a day-old lamb, but they were extremely good about it - very thorough and attentive. The diagnosis? The lamb had pneumonia, and was afflicted by septicemia (when bacteria enter the bloodstream) triggered by the illness (this was the reason for the dark purple tongue and dark eyes). The prognosis was not good, but the vet injected the lamb with antibiotics, and with electrolytes under the skin (to prevent dehydration). (For those wondering, no it is apparently not currently possible to vaccinate for pneumonia - the ewes had had their 5 in 1 vaccinations, and, what causes it? The causes seem wide and varied - bamboozingly so - I was none the wiser after fairly extensive research on the internet and talking to two lots of vets.) I took the wee thing home, not optimistic but at least glad that I had got to the bottom of the lambs' affliction.

The lamb survived several more hours, but by morning, he too was lifeless in his box. The sadness about the death of both lambs and my inability to intervene to save them lingered for weeks afterwards. We thought that maybe we would get another chance with the third ewe but that wasn't to be (maybe this was for the best).

So it was with great anticipation (excitement mixed with trepidation) that this day arrived, nearly one year later - 25 August 2018 - our first lambs.

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