This time of year, always our busiest, is the most special. There is an air of expectancy in the lambing shed. The shepherds know that new life is coming, and even the young ewe hoggets, who have never seen this before, realize that something big is happening. Their bodies have changed, and they prefer to lie and chew the cud rather than gambol around like the young lambs they were only a year ago.
Just at the start of lambing, my attention had been caught by one of the hoggets, Ewe 183. She was off her feed, and had taken to lying apart from the rest of the flock. This is a common sign in the final stages of pregnancy – the ewe’s body is so full of lamb that there is little room for food, and the ewe instinctively moves apart from the flock just before giving birth – about the only time that a healthy ewe would choose to do so. It stops the other ewes from stealing her lambs – ewes are always drawn to the newborn of the flock.
So I carried on with the long list of pressing tasks that always fill your time at the start of lambing. Two hours later 183 had still not gone into labour and, mildly concerned, I walked over to her.
With a sinking feeling, I realized that something was badly wrong. She did not even stir as I approached. I knelt beside her and ran my hand gently over her body. I knew her – not one of the foremost ewes and not one of the most shy. A middle of the flock, solid ewe of just the right temperament. One thing, however, had always marked her out from the rest. Every time we turned the flock out into a particular 5 acre field, one of a series of three that we had never properly named, she was the first to call out in pleasure. The others would follow suit as they fanned out into the fresh pasture and began to chomp their way through the new grass.
Now she was listless; worse than listless. I looked at her eyes – dull and tired. I gently lifted her head and found that her jaw was tightly clenched. I received a further shock as some instinct told me that she was on the point of death. I stroked her head, snickered to her as her mother would have done, talked of the 5 acre field that she loved so much, and watched the life ebb out of her. Within 5 minutes of reaching her side, she was dead.
You get used to death in farming – but never that used to it. I sat next to her, puzzled and angry, wondering what had gone wrong. She had been fine only a few hours ago. I phoned the vet.
Terry, our vet, is a sensible man. He knows that the margins in livestock farming are razor thin, and will always give advice over the phone rather than charge for an unnecessary call out. We talked the case through but could reach no conclusion. A post mortem would be needed and Terry agreed to attend the next morning.
With a heavy heart I moved 183’s carcass over to a stone ledge ready for the post mortem and cleaned out the area where she had died. Then I sat and watched the ewes peacefully munching their hay. I felt sad, responsible and utterly helpless.
Terry attended as promised on the following morning. Working together we cut open the abdomen and examined the liver first. It was a deathly white colour – rather than the healthy red colour you would expect. The animal was severely anaemic, but the liver showed no trace of parasites or disease. Terry cut open the stomach and we examined the contents. Then he bent closer and gave a low whistle. He carefully fished out something that looked like a thread and showed me.
“Haemonchus Contortus” he said. “Known as Barber’s Pole worm – see the way its shape spirals along its length. That’s how it gets its name. When I was in college, these were only found in Kent. Now they are spreading slowly over the whole country.”
I nodded, not understanding.
“Once a ewe has got them they can live in her for months without any serious effects” he continued. “Then when the ewe’s system gets under stress, such as in late pregnancy, the Haemonchus can suddenly multiply and suck up to a quarter of a litre of blood a day from the ewe. She can stand it for so long, then suddenly keel over.”
I nodded again. He looked at me, understanding my frustration.
“You did everything you could” he added gently. “You did an FEC before you ran them up for lambing and it was clear, right?”
Again, I nodded. The FEC or Faecal Egg Count looks for worm’s eggs in the sheep’s droppings. Only if the worm’s eggs were present would we drench the sheep with a chemical wormer. As organic farmers we try to only use chemicals when we have evidence that they are necessary.
Terry spoke again. “It can happen that way with a clear FEC. The Haemonchus were there, just too few in number to be spotted. Then once the ewe went into the last stages of pregnancy, her resistance fell and the worms multiplied.” He paused. “But, it’s the first case I’ve seen in the area.” We looked at each other.
“Then she was a sentinel case” I said, “the first to alert us to a new problem”.
Terry nodded. “Yes, if she has them, so does the rest of the flock. The white drench is not effective against Haemonchus. You need to drench the lot with a yellow wormer, and you need to do it fast. I’ve got some in the car.”
He went to collect the wormer while I started to think the problem through. Drenches come in colour coded groups to help prevent resistance building up amongst the parasites. This year we had been using a white drench when the FEC showed it was needed. We had intended to move onto the yellow drenches next year. Now we needed to do it in very short order. Every ewe would need one cc of the drench for each 10 kilograms of body weight. We would need to dose the rams as well. We would do the ewes in the lambing shed first, they were at the greatest risk. Then move on to the ewes in the pasture. The rams were least at risk because they spent so much of the year in sparsely populated fields, so we could do them last. I would need all the help I could get, and it was a Sunday.
Terry handed over a large bottle of the yellow drench, and wished me luck as he scrubbed up before leaving for his next case. I rounded up Mary, Bridget’s mother, Bridget and our four children. Working together we had drenched the ewes in the lambing shed by lunchtime and had finished the ewes and rams at pasture before supper.
Over the following days two more ewes (153 and 184) fell ill with the same ghastly symptoms – clenched jaw, anaemia, off their food. Terry phoned to check how we were doing, and hearing the news sounded grave. “Keep them as calm as you can” he said. “Stress puts a strain on them which can be enough to finish them off. Also try feeding them ivy – they love it and it stimulates their appetites. The more concentrates you can then get in, the more protein they will get, and the more replacement red blood cells they can generate. The drench will have killed off the Haemonchus by now. The ewe has to do the rest.”
You win some, you lose some. Ewe 153 survived but her twin lambs were born far too listless, caused by a badly weakened mother. We fed the lambs colostrum every 3 hours by stomach tube and kept their body temperatures up with warming lamps in the after care unit, but neither twin survived more than 24 hours. Ewe 184 also recovered, but in her case gave birth to a fine, strong ewe lamb and became an excellent mother; all thanks to the power of a good vet, ivy and the timely warning that 183 gave us.
In the long nights that followed, as I immersed myself in the routine of lambing and listened to the calls of the lambs and the snickering answers of their mothers, I often found myself thinking of 183. A good, solid middle of the flock ewe. I thought too of the way she used to call out in happy gratitude whenever she entered her favourite field.
Slowly the frustration started to melt away and I began to feel grateful for what she had given us – a timely warning that saved the flock. And as the nights drew in and the clamour of the new born lambs grew, I became convinced that it was finally time to give a proper name to the 5 acre field that 183 loved so much.
We’re going to call it ‘Sentinel’.