Sheep and Death (a seasonal reflection!) (Part One)

Sheep and Death (a seasonal reflection!) (Part One)

Image courtesy of Raw Story

Sheep are proverbial amongst the farming community for having a strong death-wish!  Indeed it is even said that no Blue-faced Leicester should be sold without an accompanying spade with which to bury it …

(We should point out that it is illegal to bury dead stock mostly, but this saying pre-dates current requirements!)

The main issue for sheep is that, although they have relatively few predators once past being tiny lambs, apart from out-of-control dogs, they are quite inclined to get both diseases and parasites, particularly if intensively farmed on land which has had sheep for many years.  This is of course exacerbated by their flocking instinct, so it’s a bit like primary schools as great incubators of infection.  Older animals can carry a level of parasites without problems if they are otherwise healthy, and have also been observed to self medicate from suitable herbs or ivy, whenever they get the chance, and to avoid plants poisonous to them, such as bracken or ragwort.

Despite this reputation, it is rarely true of rare and primitive breeds.  We should perhaps exclude the unfortunate stupidity of the last remaining Norfolk Horn ram who, it is rumoured, managed to drown himself in a ditch, necessitating the re-creation of the breed … but the northern short-tailed breeds in particular, such as Shetland, Hebridean, Gotland, Manx, etc., are much more keen on surviving.  Herdwicks are known to have survived under snow for considerable amounts of time, if necessary eating a bit of their carbon, oxygen and nitrogen-rich fleece.  Such sheep will not die easily and have good disease resistance, particularly in the location (including climate, geology and flora) where for generations they have acclimatised.  It is for this reason that the Rare Breeds Survival Trust is creating and maintaining a national Gene Bank of semen and embryos of sheep and other rare farm breeds.  The in-built disease resistance is a vital component of the bio-diversity of these breeds and also of great commercial value.

Sheep do tend to become depressed if removed from the flock so it’s always worth providing them with an (if necessary) expendable or disease resistant companion if they have to be isolated – this is also a possible reason, apart from fleece quality and ram socialisation, to keep a few wethers in the flock.  Also some sheep just do want to live more than others so company, constant attention and care will help encourage them not to give up.  It is slightly consoling and worth considering that if in the end they don’t have the will to live they may not breed progeny with a strong love of life either.

Location, location, location

So if we ship sheep all over the place, cross-breed them to make them grow meat faster and farm them intensively where they have no access to wild plants, they will need help to thrive.  This is of course what the mainstream, non small-holder, farmers need to do to stay in business and grow.  So every spring the veterinary medicine and supplement manufacturers spend a great deal on advertising the most cost effective treatments to enable farmers to keep their sheep well.  At the same time, some vets and others will be raising concerns about over medication, particularly of anti-biotics and the risks of creating greater drug resistance among the parasites.
One of the most important aspects of sheep in the UK is that we have a great variety of breeds, almost all named for their original location of development.  They are suited to these places: they have learned to thrive on the terrain and in the weather, whether on hills, moors, downs, rye-lands or marshes, and also to the mineral balance of the soils there.  It is especially these key trace elements and minerals which enable sheep and man, and indeed other animals, to remain healthy.

Meanwhile, disease resistance is not valued for two reasons: the “better safe than sorry” response to adverts or just “we always do this and it has worked” mean that farmers will stick to their habitual preventative treatments and use them for many years without questioning either the need or the efficacy.  Combined with the very short lives of many sheep: 6-12 months for most meat production, probably only around 3 years for rams and maybe 5 years for ewes, it is only those with older flocks and pedigree animals who have a better idea of longevity.  When the record lives of sheep are well into their 20’s, it is worth considering whether it is all breeds or only some which have this characteristic and/or whether it can be bred for, as an alternative to expensive and possibly ineffective or even dangerous (as with anti-biotic or wormer resistance development) options.  From my own experience, I know that some, though not all, Gotlands live well into their mid teens while Blue-faced Leicesters rarely reach the age of ten.  Also of course strong lambs grow into strong sheep so, sadly, sometimes keeping the weak ones alive only causes problems for them later.

Husbandry There is occasionally a degree of criticism (a shame it’s not more debate and discussion!) between different styles of husbandry, whether large-scale, organic or small-scale.  The large-scale people have tended to look down on smaller-scale people as less professional, while since everyone has to comply with the same rules and regulations, this is in practice rarely true.  Often the husbandry methods used are a mix of habit, what has always been done, and an occasional experiment based on hearsay or (even sometimes!) veterinary advice … of course there is a great deal of science, but by definition what I have already said about breeds, terrain and soil means that there is no single panacea.

And although we all sometimes shirk it, the vital task is record keeping – reviewing what was given to each animal and when, and which animals were treated differently can be very illuminating when one goes back and looks at the notebook.  As farmers, we are required to keep so many records, of tags, births, deaths and movements, along with treatments used and also if relevant pedigree records, that it is not that often that we actually review things to see what has worked and what has not.
It is also true that almost all farmers see the death of an animal as a defeat and shameful, particularly as animal welfare is an emotive issue.  So they do not tell each other about the diseases and deaths or how they deal with them, so the sharing of potentially effective new ideas and advice is often quite limited.  And of course, there is almost too much information from the marketing people, so it is not always easy to know where to start.