Saturday 7 April 2012

A Shed full of Sheep

That’s what faced me on the night of 5th/6th April – a shed full of sheep. There had been only about 20 sheep which had left the shed that morning but the ewes due to lamb in the second week had now joined them, bringing the total closer to 100.
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When I say they had left the shed that morning this is because the ewes are only housed at night, being allowed out to grass during the day to lamb in more natural conditions. The twenty however had been whittled down indoors during the previous two days due to the inclement weather, they had been held in during daylight hours to save them from dealing with the harshness of the weather. Boy were they pleased to see daylight and fresh air on the morning of their release after two days of total confinement.

Cheviots are not well suited to being housed, being a flighty breed they don’t seem to settle too well when they are housed and looking them throughout the night is not always easy. No matter how quietly and gently I tiptoe into the lit shed there is always one on sentry duty, as soon as she spots me she bangs to her feet as a warning and all the rest follow suit, I find myself standing, looking, listening, studying for what seems like an eternity to try and work out if anything is up to mischief – either thinking of lambing or on lambing, the more sheep there are in the shed the more difficult it is.

So it is this particular night, shed full of sheep, even flightier than usual due to the fact that for many it is their first night indoors - their first night of disturbance..

At this point I am going to tell you that there may or may not be accompanying photographs, bear with me if I suggest there is a photo and yet there isn’t, due to having to use a mobile dongle to access the internet not everything runs as smoothly as I would like, there are many photos I wish to share with you all but it isn’t always possible.
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It took me some time to ascertain that indeed something was going on, I tailed and castrated some lambs ready to go out tomorrow whilst quietly trying to keep a beady eye on those in the lambing pen, I finally concluded that there may be three ‘something’s’ going on. I gently walked in amongst them to try and see what exactly was going on and wasn’t just too sure of what I was seeing.

At this stage it really doesn’t help that Cheviots don’t take too kindly to you gently walking into their space, that flight thing they are so renowned for comes to the fore and they ‘kindly’ all run in a tight bunch to one end of the shed, attempts at quietly trying to look at backsides can see them all charge to the other end of the shed – an absolute nightmare which requires quick recognition of issues and the sheep with the issues.

So it was, there are definitely at least three sheep in the throes of lambing. I exited their pen and stood back and studied. There is one in particular that I am not convinced is managing, however, how can you really tell when sheep are so unsettled, so uncooperative and held together quite so tight?

Sheep commence labour by appearing unsettled, sometimes they just flick their lugs (ears) around, or look back at themselves, lay down and rise, turn around, scratch at the ground, curl their lips up, basically sometimes looking confused (especially first time lambers), other times looking uncomfortable. Eventually the spasms kick in, the contractions. Lying or standing the nose will be raised in the air and lugs laid back as a ‘push’ is the order of the day, this can be silent, may come with a grunt or a blaar – they are all different.

Some sheep can start their labour and have lambs on the ground in no time at all and with very little fuss, others can take an hour or two, some with much fuss and commotion others in a more covert manner.

It is the covert manner which can give rise for concern. Should a lamb be badly presented inside the ewe, be lying in a manner that she will not be able to lamb it naturally her body often seems to shut down to the idea. The first signs of lambing will be present, there will probably be a water bag passed but after that she may well just ‘give up’. This is fairly easily spotted outdoors as the ewe will appear ‘off the stott’ (not right), even in sheds it can be fairly obvious if there is sufficient room to see what is going on and sufficient memory space in your head to recall those who had started to lamb but never got any further. These sheep are capable of ‘giving up’ the idea of lambing and actually chewing their cud or heading for hay so it is necessary to be able to store everything in your head and not overlook one if things get busy.

Should they be overlooked they will become apparent eventually, the lamb dies inside the ewe and soon begins to rot due to the body heat of its host, this will lead to the sheep looking sick and upon inspection it will soon become apparent that a lamb is stuck inside the sheep, a smelly lamb at that.

So it is then that there is one sheep Shep isn’t too sure about. What ought I do? Dive in and lamb her? Chase all the sheep around the shed, including the other two which are starting to lamb to catch a hold of her and see if there is a problem or not?

Time. That is the answer, or it is to me. Early into my night shift and I don’t fully know the history, length of times etc that these sheep have been in labour, they are also extremely unsettled in their new environment. I concluded I would exit the shed, give them all an hour before going back to see what if anything they were all up to.

I am writing this post during that hour, having headed back into the cottage for some warmth. An hour is a long time to fill in, especially when there are concerns, some may say it is a huge risk and I would have been wise to catch all three sheep – that is the reason I do night lambings, the least interference the better is my logic. I will be able to tell how things are going when I head back out, hopefully the sheep will have had time to settle down and recommence their labours, I know in my head who I am looking for, where their spots in the shed were, unfortunately I also know that the one who is left on sentry duty will alert all the others and they will bang to their feet when I re enter the shed.

It is 11.15pm on Thursday 5th April and I am heading back out there, my hour is up and it is time to go see exactly what them woolly critters think they are up to.


Dr Clive Dalton said...

HI Shep - a fascinating bit of sheep behaviour. As you say - Chivits would be biggest challenge to get used to human presence during the night.

In the 1960s a researcher Joan Munro of HFRO spent a lot of time studying whether sheep slept. She discovered what every shepherd knows - that the do sleep - but not for long intervals.

Can you comment on this Shep from your nightly visits?

And if disturbance at night prevents them lambing, do more of them tend to lamb during the day?

Tarset Shepherd said...

Hi Clive, will write something about sleeping, can't wait to be tucked up in me bed at night!!

The ewes this year seem madder than usual, them on the hill may well be a bigger challenge than previous years, hope the dog is fit!