Friday 22 January 2010

snow blindness

Life can be bad enough for the sheep in the weather we've just had without any further complications but odd sheep have been showing signs of snow blindness.

Head raised and often cocked to one side she'll stumble around with a strange gait, bumping into anything which may get in her way and rebounding like a sprung coil in any direction her body will take her. To stand and listen with the raised head once again cocked to one side, tentatively stepping forward with high steps before again recoiling from some imaginary something which she deems to be in her way. Sometimes just wandering aimlessly in circles again with the high stepped, staggering gait.

Whatever the season there is often a reason for some sheep to suffer blindness, whether it be snow blindness or heather blindness it can cause them great distress. Often linked with air born particles; heather blindness seems to coincide with the pollen when the heather is in bloom or when the seeds disperse easily off the plants, snow blindness most probably due to the icy particles blowing into their eyes, or also seeds off the hay being fed to them.

A feeling most of you out there will have experienced this winter, snow in your eyes - funny how it stings!

We stand a great deal taller than a sheep, they're spending all their living hours at the same level as the blowing snow - those icy particles whipped up by the wind and blowing horizontally across the terrain directly onto the sheep. Of course they can turn their backs to the weather or find shelter somewhere but unrelenting night and day can take it's toll. They also have to shove their faces into the snow to forage, no getting away from the stuff.

Your eyes are stinging, smarting, watering but there's nowt you can do - no goggles, hands to rub or bathe just more snow, more cold. The cornea can get damaged, frostbite may even be a factor along with the glare of the sun. Sunny days, frosty nights and no protection for your eyes - not pleasant.

The eyes start with a redness/bloodshot and start watering, they can then turn opaque and in truly severe cases the eye gets so inflamed it looks like it may burst and indeed can, although rarely. Not pleasant.

Many years ago the flock I was shepherding were struck down with this snow blindness, quite a high percentage in actual fact as usually you can be lucky enough to only have a few suffering this misery but in this particular case there were many.

An experiment was run, unintentionally I must say.

Some of the ewes ended up left out on the hill and received no treatment what so ever, the remainder were brought into the fields to prevent them falling into drains and the likes. There were two fields with blind sheep in, one which I tended to and one which the farmer tended to. My sheep received veterinary approved treatment with penicillin cream or powder being put into their eyes. The other field received an old tradition the farmers father had sworn by with neat whisky being administered to their eyes (I did think at the time that this was a terrible waste!).

The conclusion? All sheep recovered at the same rate, even those which had been untreated - interesting! It must be said though that none of them were so severely afflicted that their eyes ruptured.

Sheep with blindness are best left undisturbed, unfortunately when they're receiving supplementary feeding as at the moment that causes a disturbance to any which can't see. If they can hold with the rest of the flock they'll move along with the sound of their mates but once they feel isolated a mild panic sets in, with deep snow and drains to contend with this is a dangerous situation as she might well find herself stumbling and bounding into a situation she can't get out of, even catching her and treating her on the spot can cause a great deal of trouble, it pays to weigh up the pros and cons as the least disturbed and more relaxed they feel the more secure they will be and less likely to get into physical difficulties.

It may seem cruel to be kind but especially out on the open hill in poor weather it pays to keep off the afflicted beast as interference can cause far more bother and be a greater threat to her life. When the day comes that they find themselves in the sheep pens treatment can then be administered. Yet more work for the shepherd.


jan shepherdess said...

This article was really useful - many thanks

Tarset Shepherd said...

Pleased to hear it was of help, hope if you are having trouble with snow blindness it soon resolves itself.