Risks and dangers to lambs on a smallholding
Today I rescued a ewe lamb who had become entangled in baler twine and could have strangled herself. This reminded me that although we always have to be careful to ensure that the smallholding is safe for ourselves and our livestock, at lambing time we need to be particularly vigilant. Here is some advice and tips from our experience over the years.
Wind and Rain
Once we are sure that the lamb and mother have bonded well, and that the lamb is suckling and there are no other ailments, we turn them out into our field. When they first go out we put lamb mac’s on the lambs which are plastic coats that provide protection from rain and wind.
First time ewes/mothers don’t necessarily know to take their lambs under shelter in heavy rain or wind, or the ewes who have a very thick winter coat and are happier lying outside in all weathers. We have also found that the Herdwicks with their oily fleece do not feel the damp as badly as our other sheep, however we do not use a Herdwick tup so the lambs do not have as good a coat as their mothers.
Using the above methods mean that hopefully we have reduced the risk of a lamb getting chilled or suffering hypothermia. Its not the first time that a vulnerable lamb (e.g. suffering from joint ill) has worn the dog coat belonging to my Jack Russell as extra protection! Please don’t worry, the examples I have given are exceptions. Normally lambs get plenty of warm milk from their mothers regularly and this helps to keep them warm. In time the lambs soon outgrow their plastic rain coats or we remove them if the weather is warm and mild.
Up here in Fife Scotland, we can get ‘four seasons in one day’ as they say. And it is important to provide shelter for the lambs – somewhere they can go during extreme weather (wind, rain, snow). Its April just now and this month we have had heavy rain (making the ground damp to lie on), very cold winds (which chill both sheep and lamb), and snow (cold and damp). Lambs can get chilled, and suffer from hypothermia, joint ill, or pnuemonia from bad weather.
We have fixed shelters in one of our fields but these can often be full at lambing time or during extreme weather. The picture above was taken during very cold north winds and the sheep came together in the south facing shelter (perhaps to get heat from each other). We also use other bits of kit that provide added shelter opportunities for ewes with their lambs.
Often at the start of a lambs life the mothers like to keep themselves and their lambs separate from other mothers and lambs, so one big shelter is not the best. Later when the lambs know the call of their mum, and everyone is used to each other then lamb nurseries can develop where the lambs come together to play or sleep whilst the mums go off to graze.
Where there are no natural opportunities like a hedge or stone wall, lots of little shelters (e.g. with straw bales) should be provided to make sure that they all have somewhere to go when settling their lambs down for the night, or when leaving them to go of and graze. Sheep often like to lie with their back against something. Farmers can move their livestock onto drier fields in wet weather however smallholders often do not have that option. We also sacrifice an area of pasture during the winter (e.g. where ground around the feeder or shelter becomes poached and muddy) that is reseeded in the spring. Despite field drains and the building of a hard standing around the water/feeding/shelter area our ground can still get wet at times of prolonged heavy rain. We therefore use horse or cow mats (purchased from Ebay and our local Agricultural merchant) on the ground during winter and lambing time and the sheep will choose to lie on these in preference to damp cold ground. They are easily cleaned and are warm even when wet – unlike straw. We also use metal hoops (or square straw bales) that can be used as mobile wind breaks or shelters from the rain and will also provide shade in the summer.
All animals need salt. Licks provide not only salt, but also trace elements, sometimes minerals and vitamins. A salt or mineral lick is an important supplement for the ewe especially prior to and during lambing. However like other nutrients (protein, energy, vitamins, and water), minerals have to be supplied within certain limits to serve their purpose. Sheep, like all other livestock, have their own specific requirements and toxic levels. Read more.
Your ground may also be deficient in certain trace elements (such as copper, selenium or cobalt) that will require treatment or administration to your flock in other ways.
Some lambs seem to have a fascination for a salt/mineral lick and will lick it constantly making them ill (poisoning) and die. Make sure that licks are well out of reach, adjusting the height as the lamb grows. I have not been able to establish if this is the case, but where I suspect that a lamb has been licking the salt I have discovered white pasty poop which might be an indicator that something is wrong.
Water is vital for a ewe, however lambs can drown in bucket of water like the one below.
Instead we use where we can, drinkers that fit onto lamb hurdles and are high enough that the lambs cannot reach.
We have learnt to our cost to make sure that boards or hurdles are secured to prevent them from being knocked or blown over. Lambs sleep a lot and like to lie against or shelter under things like these. All it takes is for an unexpected gust of wind or a ewe to rub or bump against them for an accident to happen.
Dogs should be kept well away from pregnant ewes and lambs. Like foxes and other predators (crows, magpies, and seagulls) they know that young lambs are vulnerable. Ewes might defend their lamb, but when they have twins this is more difficult.
We have found that bottle fed lambs are more prone to bloat when they start to eat grass. I’ve observed that lambs with their mothers will copy them and nibble at grass throughout their time when suckling, however when weaning bottle fed lambs they are obsessive about food and gorge themselves regularly. This is perhaps to do with the fact that they cannot suckle on demand and feel the need to fill themselves whenever food is available just in case. We therefore have found that the following measures are in place with bottle fed lambs to minimise this often fatal risk.
- keep bottle fed lambs within the flock so that they too can copy the behaviour of other sheep
- restrict their grazing and gorging (see lamb pen below with dry hay available)
- act quickly when bloat is evident
Lambs can get a runny bum otherwise known as scours/diahroea/dysentery from a range of infections, and depending on how good their immunity is (e.g. how much colostrum they had and what age they are) will influence whether they get really sick and how well they recover. Although without intervention from the smallholder they may not recover at all. Causes can be parasitic or viral, environmental (water/bedding/udders) and/or nutritional, but all result in rapid dehydration of the animal. Timely treatment, fluids to rehydrate and containment of potentially infectious poop is critical in the effort to provide the animal the best chance for recovery. Determine the cause of the scours. Environmental causes may be unsanitary surroundings or possible contact with unclean water (read more) or infected faeces. Viral or bacterial causes may be E. coli, rotavirus, cryptosporidium, salmonella, giardia or clostridium perfringens type C.
Its scary I know but I start by trying to identify what is wrong by the colour of the lambs poop – please note that there are many reasons why a lamb is sick and you must always consult your vet. Here is my experience on what may be wrong with a lamb on my smallholding :
Young lambs overfeeding on rich mothers milk might develop a scour. I would make sure that the bum is cleaned (warm water or wet wipes) and doesn’t harden and obstruct the lamb from pooping or it might suffer watery mouth and could die from septicemia. If watery mouth develops then I treat accordingly.
This is serious and may indicate Colibacillosis/E. coli and requires antibiotics. As with all lambs with scours make sure that it is not dehydrated, and isolate it from other lambs. WASH YOUR HANDS THOROUGHLY.
Worms read more…..
This may simply be grass scours when moving on to good rich pastur,e or when a lamb starts to eat grass. However it could also be Nematodirus which is a disease that affects young lambs at 4 – 10 weeks of age. The symptoms are a watery-green scour which leads to severe dehydration, and death in some cases. The disease is the result of a large number of over wintered larvae hatching out within a short period following the right climatic conditions. Young grazing lambs pick up the infective larvae which develop into adults in the intestine and after a period eggs are passed out in the faeces. These eggs will then over winter on the pasture and become the source of infection for the follow year’s lambs. This disease can be prevented by keeping this year’s lambs off pasture that was grazed by lambs last year. Where this is not possible, lambs should be dosed with a suitable anthelmintic in early to mid – May followed by a repeat dose in 4/5 weeks.
Other dangers to lambs can be ignorance and lack of observation. Check out my posts on :