As the title suggests, we now have sheep! It’s been a bit of a whirlwind since we got them and I’ve probably experienced the hardest month of my smallholding journey so far, so it’s taken me a while to gather my thoughts and feel like I want to write them down!
This blog post aims to detail my sheep journey so far and a bit of an insight into how to try your hand at shepherd(ess)ing, from being a complete novice. As we did, always consult professionals, either experienced shepherds or reference books (Tim Tyne’s The Sheep Book for Smallholders and The Haynes Sheep Manual by Liz Shankland have been a great help). I would also recommend joining online forums and social media groups, in which you can chat to people in the same position as you (but remember many of these like myself are by no means experts!), but you will appreciate their support and kind words when it goes wrong and also encouragement when it goes well! There’s a lot to think about before getting sheep, so do your research!
On 18th April after much deliberation and searching we bought four Devon Closewool orphan lambs from a local breeder. Two ewe lambs and two wethers (castrated males). The plan was to keep the females for breeding and raise the males for the freezer. When we first looked into getting orphan lambs, there were lots of people who advised against it. It is hard work, they don’t often make it, being weak from the start and you end up becoming too attached.
Despite all the warnings, there were people who said it was one of the most rewarding things they have done and having tame lambs, especially in a larger flock can prove useful. After weighing up the pros and cons, we went for 4 orphan lambs, thinking that if we did lose any to illness or disease, that we would have ‘spares’. Oh the irony!
One of the reasons we opted for the Devon Closewool, was that not only was it a breed native to the area we were living, but that it is also a rare breed. We currently have rare breed Large Black pigs and also a couple of Silver Bantam rare breed ducks, so it made sense to maintain the current theme of our livestock. They are reportedly great sheep for first-timers, hardy and docile, described as an ‘easy-care’ breed. Also, they are the cutest looking sheep we could find, if you were to imagine ‘Mary’s Little Lamb’ these would be it!
So with a dog crate in the back of the 4×4 I drove to the breeder’s farm to collect them. They were being raised inside a barn on an ‘ad lib’ feeding system, a bucket with multiple teats so they can feed as and when they want to, ‘little and often’ much like they would with their mum. They were all varying sizes, one fairly big boy and one considerably smaller girl, the other boy & girl were somewhere in the middle. They were all around 20 days old (give or take a few days either way). They were a bit mucky, particularly a couple of their back-ends, something which I questioned. I was told that because they were in a barn, they are prone to lay in theirs and each others poop, so it was nothing to worry about.
Once I got them home, I posted on social media my excitement of receiving new lambs and a few people commented on their mucky bottoms and that I should get it checked out. I cleaned the ones which seemed to have the worst bottoms with a Hibiscrub solution and monitored to see if they continued with scour. They didn’t, so at this point I was happy and considering they had never seen grass before, let alone eaten it, this was also going to have an effect on their digestive system, so something to keep an eye on for sure.
The smallest girl had a case of ‘orf’, a disease similar to that of the common cold sore, very contagious to the other lambs and humans. In order to treat it with antibacterial spray, we needed to get the vet out for a site visit. She was happy with their condition, prescribed Terramycin (wonderful stuff!) and suggested that we worm them and start them on the Heptavac P system (will discuss in detail further down).
The first few days of feeding took a bit of getting used to. We were in the process of moving house, so the lambs were placed in the portion of land behind our ‘soon to be’ back garden. We hadn’t quite finished the fencing yet, but we made an enclosure from several lambing panels which was more than sufficient, a temporary solution. Orphan lambs at 3 weeks of age need a milk formula (powdered milk mixed with water) at least 3 times a day (if not on an ad lib system). We bought a bottle rack feeder which you could fit four bottles in and a bag of Lamblac. They need about 2 pints a day, split into 3 feeds, so at 08:30, 14:30 & 20:30 I was prepping four bottles and driving them over to the field (about a 5 minute drive so not too far!). What I realised very quickly is when you are mixing up Lamblac there are some essential tools that you need:
– A mixing bucket, preferably with a pouring lip
– A whisk
– A measuring jug
– Weighing scales
– A bottle brush
– At least 1 extra set of bottles & teats!
Mixing Lamblac with cold water has a tendency to get lumpy if you don’t mix it into a paste first. Gradually add the rest of the water into the paste solution, constantly stirring with the whisk. I know this sounds as if I’m teaching you to suck eggs, but it took me a while to get the perfect consistency so it helps to know you can’t just whack it all in and whisk it, it won’t work!
The other thing I hadn’t quite prepared for was the lambs to be fussy over teats. The teats that came with the bottle rack pack, did not seem to do the job and none of them were feeding properly for the first 24hrs. I went to Mole Valley and purchased some alternative more rounded teats and this seemed to do the trick! Turns out lambs can be as fussy as humans when it comes to bottle feeding!
The next thing you have to consider when feeding orphan lambs, is they tend to gorge on milk. They’re hungry little souls and when a large amount of milk is given to them, they just want to gulp it all down. This can cause lambs to ‘bloat’ and in severe cases can cause death. It is good practice to interrupt their drinking, I did it every 10-15 seconds. They don’t like it and will try and jump on another teat if available, but breaking up their intake of milk is similar to what they would take from mum anyway, so completely natural behaviour.
I gave milk to my lambs up until they were 8 weeks old. They were getting some creep feed as well, about 4 cups twice a day at this point. At 7 weeks I dropped their lunchtime feed and then the last couple of days, they just got an evening feed. Some people recommend stopping bottle feeding abruptly, but this method worked well for us. Ours are 10.5 weeks old now and mainly on grass, but with creep and a salt lick supplement. At 12 weeks I plan to stop their creep and keep them as purely grass fed lambs.
The salt lick is something that sheep need because as ruminants they lack salt in their natural diet and need this to thrive and have a healthy immune system. They can also have additional mineral licks, specific for the type of sheep you have (breeding ewes etc) so it’s good to research which ones would be best for you.
Sheep are prone to picking up different types of diseases from the ground, so as a rule it’s a good idea to keep an eye on their worm count, use preventative treatment for flystrike and consider immunisations for clostridial diseases, such as the ‘Heptavac P’ programme. This is the one that we used and it seems to be the most widely used and effective.
Although we started off with four lambs, we currently only have two left. The first lamb we lost was the middle ewe lamb, who I noticed was acting strangely when I went to feed them their lunchtime bottle at around 5 weeks old. She didn’t come to drink her milk and was very restless. Lying down, standing up, standing hunched over and her stomach looked quite swollen. I immediately thought it could be bloat and phoned the vets. They recommended that I bring her in.
They took her into the examination room and I waited in the car whilst they treated her. After about 10 minutes the vet came and got me and explained, although they too thought it initially could be bloat, it could be something else, something which this vet had only seen in cows. There were various options, including surgery, but at this point he wasn’t entirely confident that surgery was the best option, considering they weren’t sure what it was and whether surgery would actually rectify the situation. They had already given her some pain killers and then decided on giving her an intravenous injection to help ease the swelling in her abdomen. They shaved her neck and tried to find a vein on one side but couldn’t, so had to try the other side. The whole time you could see that she was not doing well, but I just wanted the vets to help make her better.
Lambs and sheep can both die from stressful situations and this situation was particularly stressful for all involved. As myself and the vet were discussing what was going to happen next, in terms of the next dose of injection, one of the veterinary trainees noticed the lambs tongue had gone blue. They rushed her off the table and into another room to give her oxygen, but by that point it was too late. I burst into tears like an absolute sap, surrounded by 2 vets, 2 vet nurses and 3 students. They were all very nice to me and offered me a cup of tea. I agreed to have an autopsy so that we could establish what she had died from. The vet reported back that it was clostridial disease, a common disease of many strains that can be picked up easily by lambs, particularly by orphans that had not been given any immunity from their mums’ colostrum.
Heartbreakingly, this lamb had been given the Heptavac P (an immunisation against clostridial diseases) initial injection by myself about 5 days previous, but they don’t actually get immunity until the second dose, which wasn’t due for another 3 weeks. I think they call that bad luck. So I lost my first lamb and it hit me quite hard. I kept thinking about all the things I had done, all the things I hadn’t, but you can’t beat yourself up about these things, you just have to learn something and move on.
Unfortunately my run of bad luck hadn’t ended and the biggest of the four lambs, affectionately referred to as ’38’ as that was the number he had spray-painted on his side, suddenly dropped dead overnight at 7 weeks old. We had started to wean him, only because he was the biggest and having spoken to the breeder, they had begun to wean their biggest lambs. They had suggested giving him a bottle with just water in, which seemed to keep him happy whilst his siblings still had milk.
He had been experiencing a little bit of scour (diarrhoea) for about a week, which I was growing concerned about. Again, a call to the vets and they suggested that I take in a faecal sample to be analysed. There is a disease called coccidosis which is another deadly disease, but it is treatable. The vet analysed the sample and said although there was trace amounts in the egg count, around 15,000, the level of concern is usually when the count hits 100,000 or more, but in order to rule out this as a reason for the scour, she prescribed a course of treatment for ’38’ and also his siblings, just in case. This was an oral liquid treatment given on the Wednesday.
By Friday it seemed some of 38’s poops were starting to harden up, so I was hopeful that the treatment seemed to be working. All three lambs had their bedtime feed and the next morning I woke up to find 38 dead in the middle of the field. I was devastated, not another one! His eyes had already been pecked out by birds, so we had to move him to a place where he was safe from scavengers. We arranged with a local kennels for him to be disposed of legally, but this time decided against an autopsy. It was likely that the scour was an indication of something wrong, perhaps not what the vet initially thought, perhaps he had multiple things wrong with him, perhaps he died from the same clostridial disease his sibling had a few weeks earlier. Who knows. But as the old saying goes, where there’s livestock, there’s deadstock. Not very comforting, but a stark reality when farming or running a snallholding.
It took me a while to shake off the feeling of dread when going to check on the lambs, although it is still there a bit most mornings. I know raising orphan lambs is hard, everyone says it is, but I didn’t realise how hard. I think I have also been terribly unlucky and as a first timer and I have certainly experienced a very steep learning curve.
The other two lambs, Peanut (ewe) and Rambo (wether) seem to be doing well, although hopefully that hasn’t jinxed it! I have trained them (sort of) to the bucket, which hopefully means that moving them about is much easier, in theory anyway!
They are both full of character and incredibly tame. They have zero fear of our dogs (not ideal) and just want to play with them like puppies would! They love cuddles and scratches, and enjoy giving you a good sniff and checking you over for anything tasty. Buttons and shoelaces are a favourite to nibble on, but obviously I don’t encourage that! It’s lovely having them so close to the house, but if they hear my voice in the garden, they do tend to ‘baaaa’ the place down!
I genuinely didn’t think I would have so much affection for sheep as I do, so much so, we’re planning on getting some Exmoor Horns to add to our flock next week, so watch this space!