A pedigree flock of Devon & Cornwall Longwools. Picture courtesy of BWMB.
This has been quite a hard winter for sheep farmers: not only has it been very wet indeed, which is bad for sheep, but also the meat prices have been a bit lower …
As a result, there cannot be many shepherds this year who have not experienced losses of ewes, rams, yearling lambs and newly born lambs. We have heard sad stories of lambs being born only to drown in the mud and puddles in the field before they can get up or die of pneumonia from getting too chilled. This is very hard to deal with.
It’s always really sad to lose an animal, whether an old friend or a new one scarcely known yet.
We do know the farming myth that the main ambition of a sheep from the moment of birth is to die, preferably dramatically. We also know the one about the Blue-faced Leicesters, so famous for their death wishes that they should normally be sold with a spade, for use in their imminent burial (though of course burying livestock on the farm is never done nowadays …)!
However, in our experience and that of the many breeders of primitive and rare breed sheep, this is really a myth and most sheep, provided that they are not allowed to get depressed by separation from the flock, will try quite hard to survive. Ewes will fight off potential predators of their lambs and rams will also fight, thankfully usually each other, but occasionally fence posts or passing humans.
And yet …
Most of the sheep bred nowadays are in fact specifically bred for meat, which inevitably means we will kill them!
Of course, we do it properly, after the shortest practical and safe journey, in a licensed abattoir, with veterinary and meat inspectors present. No sick animals may be killed here, and some carcases may be rejected, or for example liver may be rejected due to fluke, as the meat will be going into the feed chain. Or we call in the knackerman, who does a quick, efficient job with a revolver in the comfort of one’s own barn or field and removes the carcase for disposal
Sue's Gotland flock on a frosty morning.
So we live with an odd dichotomy: we nurture and cherish our breeding rams and ewes, and our new lambs, while we also kill healthy animals for food and cull out unhealthy and old animals or those unsuitable for breeding.
Resolving this on an individual basis is quite hard: and in fact I know that I – and others – can be quite subjective in making some of the judgements, particularly if the animal in question has a “good” personality or comes from a “good” bloodline, or indeed if it cost a lot of money! Also it’s heart-breaking to admit defeat with an animal which has failed to thrive after a great deal of good care. On veterinary advice, I recently had three sheep killed by the knackerman, as it became clear that in this winter they would not make it to the abattoir and it was kinder to deal with it promptly: they were not in pain but they were clearly not going to thrive, although I hated doing it. Usually the knacker comes to despatch an old friend unable to make another winter, which is very sad but feels like the right thing to do.
The worst is the unexpected or accidental death, when a dead animal is found in the field – this feels like a total failure and I always feel guilty about what I might have done to prevent it. Luckily – and because I and others work hard at it – this is not a frequent occurrence in the UK. In nearly 20 years of caring for sheep, I have only had a very few of these deaths: one fly-strike (really guilty on this one), one badger attack (nothing to be done here), two or three lambs born dead (shit happens), one lamb caught on baler twine (pretty guilty on this though it took a degree of ingenuity on the part of the lamb) … and that’s about it!
The thing which helps me manage the paradox is that I am working on a plan for improved quality of animals with high quality of life, and that when and if they need to go, the abattoir or the knackerman will deal with them respectfully and quietly. The animals would not be alive had we not bought them, bred them and cared for them so it is also our duty to ensure they die well.