Friday, 27 May 2011

Woodpecker's workshop

I'm at it again - absolutely nowt to do with sheep........ Sorry! but even shepherds have to have a break from sheep every now and again! Actually, the story behind the photos does have something to do with sheep, most of what I see can be linked with my job one way or the other and this is no exception. One of the farms I work on has sheep running on felled forestry areas. These have been felled for some time and the tree stumps are slowly rotting away. The only way across this ground is on foot as thanks to numerous tree stumps and all the drains it is impassable on a quad. Last back end I was on one of these lumps of ground setting the sheep off when I happened upon a woodpeckers workshop, one of the best I've ever seen. I made a mental note of the whereabouts and vowed to return with the camera. Gathering in early March in preperation for the scanning of these sheep I remembered to take my camera with me (really must get a little pocket camera!) It had been a frosty morning (-5) and a foggy one also. It was pretty cool to say the least, maybe I ought not to have had my hair cut early that morning - the lugs were definitely getting nipped with the cold!

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I set off across this ground with camera slung around my neck, I was cursing slightly that the fog hadn't totally cleared and the conditions may not be perfect for the photo. I had warned the farmer who was also gathering with me that I may be delayed for a short while as I needed to take a photo - just about everyone I work for seems to accept that I have some strange ideas and am prone to get sidetracked on occasion (they are either very understanding or can't find anyone else to do the job!) Anyhow, sheep were running away in front without any bother and I reached the allocated spot from where I lost sight of sheep altogether, but felt all was well and I could snatch a photo in a second or two. The fog had lifted and weak sunshine was lighting up the area beautifully. I was chuffed. Until I looked through the viewfinder and all was foggy - uh, uh! A quick removal of a protecting lens should do the job, except then the camera lens fogged up, I pointed the camera at the weak sun and crossed my fingers, the condensation did not move off the lens. A quick wipe on my jacket ought to do the job, looking through the viewfinder I found it hadn't and a more prolonged wipe was needed. The lens now looked perfectly clear but still there was a fogging through the viewfinder. The damp and cold had obviously got into the sealed lens system - fiddley sticks!! Well, by this time a fair bit of time seemed to have elapsed and I decided to photograph through the 'fog' and see if anything could be done at a later date. My mobile phone started to ring, the farmer to tell me the sheep were all safely off the lump of ground and was I on my way back - Blimey! some time must have elapsed!! I grabbed the shots and fled, I've hit a quick fix button on the computer and these are the results (still fogged up but more density of colour). I probably wont be back on that bit of ground until June and didn't have the patience to wait that long, so foggy pictures it is, although many were beyond redemption and no quick fix was going to make them viewable.

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So what is a woodpeckers workshop, looks like some rotten old bit of tree and a lot of fir cones - that's exactly what it is! The greater spotted woodpecker will stuff fir cones into some cracks or crevices to enable it to peck away and retrieve the seeds from the cone, it leaves the discarded cones lying where they drop.

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I'm sure there were more cones stuck in the wood when I originally stumbled upon this sight months ago but I still thought it looked quite dramatic and tells a story.

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Interestingly enough, just up the roadside from where I live the woodpeckers have made use of fence posts and there are many to be seen with fir cones sticking in them, nieces and nephews have often been taken up there to have a look and learn about the woodpeckers dining habits.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Down from the hills

On my first day back home I found myself at the local agricultural merchants and was greeted by one of the lads in the warehouse with "Hello, see you're back down from the hills then!" Indeed I am.

It seems to have taken a while to acclimatise, the noise, hustle and bustle seemed almost overwhelming to begin with. I always thought I lived in a fairly quiet area but I was wrong. Having spent six weeks in relative solitude in an extremely peaceful area of the countryside I found myself faced with traffic, people, school children and life in general, it's probably as well I returned when I did or I may well have turned into a hermit!!

The lambing appeared to be hectic throughout, even in the last few days when there is usually an opportunity to catch your breath the momentum kept going. I returned at the six weeks, although it had been intended I would stop on an extra couple of days to ensure everything was well sorted before I left.

Unfortunately my assistance was required elsewhere and for all the wrong reasons. A local shepherd needed to leave his lambing ewes and visit his dying father who lived many miles away. I had to get back and offer cover in such circumstances.

Maybe that didn't help the transition back to 'normal' life. I don't know. I do know it seems to have been a challenge to settle back in to the hubbub of life in Tarset.

It was unfortunate that on leaving the lambing I was unable to leave a clean slate. The last round I did around the sheep saw a number of minor problems had arisen, my de briefing to the shepherd had me listing this and that which needed checking in the morning. It is nice to be able to leave and say that to the best of your knowledge all is well, that wasn't the case this year and I was leaving feeling dissatisfied with how things were. That's livestock for you!

Many a farmer or shepherd will say "it's alright for you (the lambing man), you know when your lambing will finish and you just pick up your pay, walk away and leave everything behind" There is a great deal of truth in that, but it can also be hard to turn your back on them and walk away. A flock you have cared for for six weeks, dealt with all the problems of and you find yourself having to switch off and forget about them - not always so easy to do!

Upon my return to Tarset I found myself straight back into the thick of it. Whether due to tiredness or what I don't know but the sheep I began herding for a few days made no sense to me what so ever. It is a difficult time of year to walk 'blind' into someones fields. With sheep still left to lamb and problems lying about it can take a day or two to get your head around what is what. Twin fields with single lambs running in them can have you wondering where the other lamb is when she probably only has one and hasn't been moved out of the field to join the singles. I felt confused (not an unusual state)and somewhat out of my depth at times. However, all was well in the end, you can only do the best you can do.

Life is slowly returning back to normal, Shep is beginning to feel more sociable.

The weather is hugely disappointing, with strong winds, which I have become accustomed to in the cheviots but don't expect to such an extent at home. We are also experiencing rain and showers. It is almost as though the good weather came too soon, which some of us did wonder at the time. There is however still grass around and sheep and lambs are doing relatively well albeit hattered with the weather.

We succeeded in getting through the lamb marking of those sheep which I had lambed, with only the youngest of lambs being left to be dealt with once I had left. There were only 4 left to lamb when I departed which aint bad at all. These have now lambed out, a 'phone call from the shepherd the other night filled me in and brought me up to date with the flock. My final lamb count saw one more lamb than last year. Just one more? I hadn't had the problem of the dysentry and was hopeful of a bumper lamb count, however, the geld ewes were up considerably. I had had 7 geld the year previous with 26 geld this year. That being the potential of at least 19 less lambs. The winter weather had definitely had an affect on these ewes at tup time.

To sum the lambing up I am grateful the weather was as co-operative as it was, although the cold easterly winds did bring with them their own problems. Rain as well would probably have seen a great deal of death. Not everyone has been so fortunate. I spoke to one farmer with and easterly facing farm who had had to call the vet in when a fair number of big lambs were found blown up and dead, apparently a form of pneumonia caused by the variation in temperature and cold winds. We were having a great deal of sunshine which was hot in shelter, also hard frosts in the mornings and of course the cold wind.

I don't think I have ever seen such an early spring, so much grass and such relatively kind weather. In many respects I experienced as many and a greater variety of problems than normally expected but thankfully due to the dryness of the lambing period these never seemed a huge chore, never left you feeling despondent. However they have left me and many others feeling weary and the weather we're experiencing at the present is not helping the job.

Young Kale came on leaps and bounds throughout the duration of the lambing. Moss as usual was in his element, now five years old he is in his prime and never failed to amaze me with his capabilities, he has settled down well and could often think quicker than I could. Glen was happy to see us return albeit slightly jealous. It wasn't just the dog happy to see our return, many people have kindly mentioned how good it is to see us back which does help one to settle back in.

There were many laughs whilst I was away, much tomfoolery went on between myself, neighbours and staff. Suppers were offered and gratefully received, friends visited and were a pleasure to see. All in all it was a fairly good lambing, hands on and tiring but once again a pleasure to lamb them there cheviots in the cheviots. All I need now is to stop lambing in my sleep, catch my second wind and knuckle down to the lamb marking and forthcoming shearing seasons (if the weather will permit!)

P.S I am hopeful that I have sorted the problem of gremlins on the blog and that the missing photos from a couple of the postings in April may now have returned.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Shedding In

I was talking to a neighbouring farmer just the other day with regards to the lambing and shedding in. He’d actually pulled up in his Landover next to the sheep pens which are conveniently and socially positioned on the roadside and at the time I was busy going through the Crunchylaw sheep which I had just shed in.

“Aye” he said,” you always know the lambing will come to an end (if you fetch your tups off), unlike hay time which can stretch into October”

How true is that?

It must be heartbreaking to lamb where the tups were not pulled off the ewes once they had had the chance of a couple of 17 days worth of company with them, when will the lambing end?

Like shedding in, I can never follow the logic of not getting the ewes shed in.

Shedding in is basically bringing those without lambs into the pens, leaving those with lambs running on the hill or fields. A quick handling of the sheep soon enables you to ascertain which are yet to lamb and which are not going to lamb. Those which are yet to produce a lamb are then kept near at hand, in a field somewhere. Those which will not be producing a lamb get a red keel mark on the back of the head and get their backsides kicked back out to the hill.

We all look forward to getting shed in, life gets easier, there is less ground to cover to check those which are due to lamb, if you’re lucky they can be kept in a field closer to the place which makes for even more convenience.

The hill now only has to be looked twice a day, not the thrice which has been the norm throughout the heat of the lambing period, a lie in is possible as those which are lambing are easier accessed, seen and dealt with.

None of these sheep which I lamb are pregnancy scanned and so those geld/barren ewes are unknown until I get shed in and find out what exactly is going on with the flock. Even if the sheep have been scanned and the geld ones are already known it still pays to shed in and look through them, there are the ones which may have kebbed (aborted) and slipped the net, or something which somehow lost a lamb unknown to the shepherd. There reaches a time when we want to know what is left, what we are dealing with.

There is no fixed date for shedding in, often the sooner the better. The two cuts of sheep lambing on the hill over the back were shed in at about 14days, they had caused grief the day previous and I’d taken it into my head that one morning when they were sitting ‘pretty’ and being co –operative I’d nab them and run them down into the pens. The opportunity arose the following morning and the task was done.

Following those in which didn’t have a lamb at foot whilst trying to leave as many back as possible which did have lambs, I finally found myself with a mob of sheep in the field at the bottom. The hoggs (last year’s lambs) unfortunately had done what hoggs are good at, they had kicked their heels in the air and booled (charged) down the hill like children on a sugar fix, hyper they were and keeping them back was going to be too difficult, they were going to cause more bother than it was worth as they charged around in their exuberant fashion, they too found themselves in the field.

I then set about shedding out – about a score (20) ewes with lambs had found themselves into the field, alongside the hoggs and those without lambs. Easier to mother them up in the field than in the pens I quietly encouraged them to walk off the other sheep and set them back to the hill, out of harms way for now.

Breakfast was had before I returned and dropped the sheep into the pens, then the job began in earnest. A quick handle underneath tells you if there is any sign of a bag (udder) or not. Those tup geld (not conceived) have nothing but wool below you would really have to delve to find any sign of tits (teats). A quick mark of red sorts them out.

Some may have a slight show of bag at them. A lift of the tail can tell you whether their backsides are rosy or not, signs of blood or goo may still be evident on the tail if they’ve quietly slipped a lamb away sometime. Any doubt and the ewe finds herself sat on her backside. Holding your fingers together and pushing them into the sheeps belly above and to the sides of the bag will enable you to feel a lamb, often lying on the near (left) side of the belly – a hard bit can be felt, mebbes a leg, or a head but it can be felt through the skin of the belly – she’s in lamb! I’ve also learnt over recent years that if you draw the tits to try and get milk out, should the liquid come out waxy then she is in lamb, should it come out like water then she ain’t.

I was shocked when I shed in over the back. I had 26 left to lamb out there and 15 that wouldn’t be going to. Last year (a day later) I had had 10 left to lamb and only 1 geld – a huge difference!

The 26 lambed fast and within days I was down to single figures.

The crunchylaw ewes fared slightly better. 6 left to lamb and 10 geld, still 6 more geld than last year tho’.

It appears to be the norm around these parts, the geld are up on the year previous. The snow was bad at tup time, worse than we had had in the North Tyne and some are putting that down to being the problem, tups weren’t always changed at second time over, although there is no doubt that they had worked well first time around, mebbes a fresh lad would have made all the difference in catching the handful which had failed to hold to the tup first time around.

There have also been more kebs (abortions) for whatever reason, often stress related. During the duration of the night lambing when I was heading to the hill every morning to feed and check the hill ewes I clocked up 6 kebs, 2 of which I never found the mothers for, the other four I managed to get a lamb set on to.

So the sheep left to lamb over the back are now in a field, the crunchylaw which were lambed in an enclosure now find the remaining lambers in a small field with easy access. I rise an hour later than I did at the height of the lambing, the lambers are easily checked before breakfast and the hill is pushed in after breakfast and pushed out after tea, to ensure all is well with those young lambs and their mothers. Anything that is not well will not want to move, so not only are the sheep raked (moved, pushed in and out) to ensure they make the most of the grazing but it is also an easy way of telling if all is well or not.

Life is becoming more relaxed, lambs are to be marked before I depart for home and an invitation from the farmer whom stopped for a crack at the pens may yet to be fulfilled. “Call in for a cuppa before you leave” were the parting words. I can still recall the shepherd and I staggering away from the place last year after sharing typical Borders hospitality with the man......................

Friday, 6 May 2011

Lamb bed out

I covered prolapses in the last posting but here we are again on the same vein. Prolapse of the uterus or as we would call it ‘spitting the lamb bed out’.

Believe it or not but I did have a lamb bed this lambing time, tell you...... these sheep tried everything on this year.

I have to say I was half expecting the problem and was on hand immediately to sort it. Lamb beds usually come out due to the sheep having had a difficult lambing, she has put so much effort into getting shot of her lamb that she kicks her womb out after it. A problem more often seen in lambing sheds and which I would often put down to heavy handed lambing of sheep, that pounce and pull tactic - being too quick to get lambs out of ewes and causing more problems than you ought.

This particular ewe was spotted on the first lap of the morning, she was obviously stuck lambing. She appeared striddled a bit of the back legs and put up little of a fight with me managing (on the third attempt) to catch her with my stick on the open hill. The lamb was being hung around the nose end. It’s nose was just protruding along with the toe ends of one foot, the other leg was doubled back upon itself and basically had the lamb jammed in the pelvis of the ewe. The lambs nose was swollen and its tongue was sticking out of its mouth, swollen and purpled up.

I straightened the offending leg and the lamb came out relatively easily, once its head was in the open I checked for signs of life (poke it in the eye and see if there’s a reaction –gently tho!) It was alive – great! Its nose was cleaned off before I resumed pressure on its legs whilst its mother pushed it out.

A habit I have, as I would guess many others do, once the head is free from the inside of the ewe I squeeze the nose between thumb and forefinger in a downwards motion to remove as much mucus from around its nose as is possible, the little blighter is going to take its first gasps and doesn’t want to suck all that goo onto its lungs.

Basically the final stages of the ewe lambing were fairly straight forward but it was obvious she had been having a very difficult time, the ewe gave one last push which saw the whole of the lamb emerge into the outside world as did something else – the lamb bed! Totally different to a prolapse of the cervix, the lamb bed is a bigger, messier more fragile item. Fortunately, quite literally on hand, very little had escaped before I tried to ‘plug the flow’, so to speak. Being the first lap of the morning I had leggings on to keep warm and dry from the dogs, with one hand over the backside the other hand lifted her onto my lap in an attempt to keep everything as clean as possible, then the battle commenced to get everything fitted back in to where it had escaped from, once sorted I tied her in with wool and she gratefully received her lamb and never looked back.

The lamb bed, as already said it the uterus or womb of the ewe. Imagine a big, fat, fleshy, meaty sausage about the length of your forearm which is covered in meaty ‘lumps’ (cotyledons) and it’s hanging out of a sheeps backside – this is the lamb bed.

I say they are far more fragile than your ‘normal’ prolapse, well they are and it is far easier to cause damage when handling a lamb bed. The cotyledons can easily be burst as can the whole object and again it always seems so much wider than the hole from which it escaped. Once again a two handed job, necessitating firm but gentle all round pressure and more often than not with the ewe finding herself standing on her nose.

A lamb bed which has been out for a while can take some cleaning off, it does not have a smooth surface and is far more moist than your ‘normal’ prolapse, it must be dealt with as carefully as is possible. I learnt years ago that a bag of sugar is useful. Strange I know but it helps ‘shrink’ the offending article, have to say tho that it also makes it sticky!

Much bigger and more difficult to handle but can be replaced and has to be replaced properly. If you remove one of your socks by grabbing the top and pulling it down off your foot it will be inside out – this is the case of the lamb bed and so it is not just a matter of pushing it all back in and blocking the exit, you have to make sure it has turned back inside itself. A long arm and a bit of delving is necessary on the hill. In sheds I always make sure there is a long necked wine bottle available, preferably an empty one (easily done!), this can be inserted into the ewes backside and used to ‘iron out the wrinkles’. It is an ideal shape to ensure everything has turned back into itself and is lying right with in the ewe, it also has soft edges so oughtn’t cause any undue damage to the fragile mass it is being poked into.

Once all is sorted it pays to tie the wool, fit a harness or whatever your preferred method is, nine times out of ten though, if the lamb bed has been returned properly to its rightful place I have found they tend to be no more bother, the ewe naturally closes up and keeps her insides where they belong.

Some people will sort recurring prolapses with stitches. A running purses stitch around the sheeps backside shuts the door so to speak and holds everything in. I have never stitched a ewe up, whether because I’m female I don’t know, but the whole idea makes my eyes water and mebbes I’ve just been lucky to date but I have never found myself in the position where that option was my last resort.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011


Whilst on the night shift I managed to clock up three ewes on one night which were prolapsing. These are ewes which had yet to lamb although to those with little knowledge it may have appeared that one in particular was trying to lamb, she was straining on as though trying to give birth.

Prolapse of the cervix (neck of the womb) tends to affect ewes prior to lambing but that is not a hard and fast rule, they can also suffer from the condition after they have lambed.

The symptoms can be so slight one can wonder if they have imagined it. A golf ball sized pink bleb at the backside of the ewe which when she stands up gets sucked back in again and vanishes from sight. They can also be so severe that there is absolutely no doubting what the problem is. A football sized bleb at the backside of the ewe.

There are many trains of thought regarding the reasons for ewes prolapsing, some are linked to feeding – too much hay or dry matter, mouldy or poor quality hay. There is the line of thought that the weight of the lambs the ewe is carrying causes her to prolapse, or that the lamb/lambs somehow put pressure on the ewe causing her to start pressing on as though having birthing contractions. I don’t know what the true cause is but there is no doubt that some muscular problem arises allowing the prolapse to occur.

Hill sheep show a lower percentage of prolapse problems than in-bye sheep do. My logic tells me that this is due to them carrying fewer lambs in their tummies, getting better exercise and probably receiving less artificial feedstuffs such as hay and sheep cake.

The biggest drawback with the hill ewe if she does happen to have prolapsed is that they are more likely to have a full prolapse which basically sees the cervix and surrounding muscles totally pushed out into the outside world, where it may no longer look pink and fleshy but may have picked up contamination or even damage. So why would the hill ewe be more likely to have a full prolapse? Due in main to the fact that they are not as easily looked as sheep in fields, they aren’t all standing at the gate waiting for the feed bag. Hill sheep are scattered all over the hill and are raked and fed accordingly, many are fed on feed blocks rather than actual sheep nuts. They just aren’t as easy to spot.

As said, the prolapse can vary from the minor golf ball size to the major. Probably the best way to describe a full prolapse would be to imagine a rugby ball, cut in half around the fattest bit in the middle, that would give you a rounded cone shaped object. Now imagine it looking fleshy, slightly swollen and protruding out of a sheeps backside – there you have it – a prolapse of the cervix – not nice!

My god! Now what? If the little golf ball sized ones suck themselves back in does the big ones do the same? Unfortunately not, once out it will stop out unless someone comes to the rescue and puts it back inside the ewes body.

Care has to be taken. It is not always possible to have water and disinfectant on hand as it does pay to clean the offending article up before replacing it, might just save some infection from kicking in. The best we can often do is gently pick off and bits of grass or whatever which may be adhered to the fleshy mass and then try and encourage it to return to where it came from. Only drawback is that a full prolapse has somehow managed to be bigger than the hole in which it escaped from. It is a two handed job trying to gently encourage the slippy slidey fleshy lump to return to where it belongs. Firm pressure is needed but do beware of putting too much individual finger pressure on and also be wary of finger nails. Fingers can easily puncture a prolapse and it can then burst.

Once the fleshy ‘lump’ has disappeared from sight back into the orifice from where it originally escaped the problem is still not over – release the pressure and chances are it will just pop straight back out again as all the time you have been gently encouraging it to return home the ewe has been putting a great deal of effort into straining on and encouraging it to remain out in the fresh air. Not only are you battling with an object which is suddenly bigger than the hole it came out of but you also find yourself battling against the contractions of the ewe – not always the easiest of tasks.

Once back inside the sheep it is necessary to ensure it has gone all the way back in and turned back in on itself which necessitates your hand heading up her backside also. Bottles can sometimes be useful for this task (especially useful for a prolapse of the uterus).

I have on occasion tied a length of string from one back foot of the ewe to the other and then lifted her up onto her nose by looping the string over my shoulders, this not only helps keep the meaty bit clean but also helps everything drop back into place. Gravity and the fact the ewe can’t quite manage to push against you quite so well when she is standing on her nose! It is also possible to lift her back end up onto your knees and just have her bent like a banana below you.

Great! Much sweating, cursing and grunting and the offending article is back where it belongs, now what? Well, we would like it to stop there, it took a lot of effort to catch the sheep and replace her body parts, we don’t want to let her go and have her run away and spit it all out again. With blackfaced sheep it is relatively easy to sort by tying the wool. Strands of wool from either side of her backside are drawn across the offending orifice and tied in a reef knot, this is continued until all her privates are covered and tied in, she almost looks like she’s got a neat little woollen plait across her posterior – a new fashion accessory for sheep!

I say Blackfaced sheep are easily sorted this way, bear in mind that sheep are being bred with less wool these days and some of the barer skinned varieties don’t have the length of wool necessary to enable one to tie them in. Having said that of the three cheviot ewes I had on my night shift only one didn’t have sufficient wool to enable her to have her backside plaited. Over the years I have tied in many a mule sheep as well, even though they are supposed to be a barer skinned variety, you only need sufficient wool for it to join and be knotted.

Bare skinned sheep need something else to keep the offending article in place. Many use spoons – ewe trusses- plastic W shaped things which have a flat spatula type middle to them and two wings which have a hole for string to go through and are tied to the wool on the hips of the sheep or a string is tied around her chest to tie these strings to. I have never liked these spoons, I must be hopeless at using them as they either get pushed back out or else they seem to almost ‘cut’ into the sheeps backside, but then I very rarely have used them as I have never liked them and I’ve always been used to sheep with some wool to tie.

Prolapse harnesses are a great affair. Years ago, as a kid, I witnessed a pure bred Suffolk ewe being roped. A much revered retired shepherd was called in as a last resort to deal with a Suffolk who was determined to keep pushing out her lamb bed. I stood and watched as a length of old sisal rope was passed around her body, knotted, then passed around another part of her body, knotted again and so on until eventually the ewe was roped in. The positioning of the knots was hugely important as was the tension of the rope. Little did I know then, that I was witnessing the modern day prolapse harness.

Someone had the sense to use the knowledge of the older generation and produce a nylon webbing harness with quick release buckles to the exact design of the old roping technique and a darn sight easier. Anyone who finds themselves having any problems whatsoever with sheep prolapsing I would strongly advise they acquire some harnesses. The sheep can lamb through them, although the quick release catches are easily clipped free if it is seen the sheep is on lambing (on that note, sheep can also lamb through being tied in with wool). Once no longer required the harness can easily be washed and disinfected off ready for re use.

The other shepherd where I am lambing told me a sad tale, he had a ewe which had prolapsed, he drove her with one or two others to a net and went to catch her, she swung around and caught her backside on the fence post, the prolapse ruptured and burst......... Now what? There’s only one option and that is to put her out of her misery, the damage is beyond redemption. That is why it is necessary to apply firm but very careful pressure when replacing the fleshy mass.

Once lambed many of the sheep manage to keep their ‘bits’ where they belong, some however don’t and it is necessary to keep them tied in for a longer duration. I am a great believer of disposing of sheep from the flock which have prolapsed, the chances are high that the same problem will recur in the future.