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It’s time for hooves and bottoms again!

Every three months we give our sheep a general MOT, this means checking their teats, checking (and trimming if necessary) their hooves, trimming the wool around their bottoms and trimming the wool around their eyes.  Out of all these jobs, probably the most important is trimming the wool around their bottoms (known as “dagging” in the sheep world).  Dirty wool can attract flies which can lead to flystrike which is a killer.

I should mention at this point, back in the olden days when we first had sheep, the days leading up to doing the MOTs would cause me palpitations, (not Adrian, he is the laid back sort rather irritatingly).

Just getting our sheep into a pen, let alone doing all the necessary tasks could be fraught with disaster.  In fact it was due to many mishaps; sheep refusing to be penned up, us chasing sheep around the paddock, our inability to “tip” them once we had got them into a pen, us being stood on by sheep, us ending up flattened by a sheep, the list goes on … but anyway, all these set backs did have a positive outcome, it made us quickly rethink our sheep handling strategy.

One frosty day whilst nursing a squashed toe after being stood on yet again by one of our larger ladies I had a rare light bulb moment.  I remembered how our mentors were always leading their sheep around with halters.  They are great show enthusiasts so had trained their flock to be halter trained.  I wondered if we could do the same and so make life easier for ourselves when it came to doing their health checks.  We weren’t interested in showing our sheep, but the idea of a docile sheep trotting after us on a lead rope seemed very appealing not to mention practical.  I particularly like the idea of not having to “tip” a sheep again (it’s nigh on impossible unless you have cracked the technique and I clearly hadn’t).  The vision I had in my mind was to be able to work on the sheep whilst it was standing up, tied to a railing by a lead rope rather like a horse.

A training plan started to form in my mind based on a mixture of Cesar Millan’s and Monty Robert’s “whispering” approach.  I would use psychology, patience and bribery in the form of sheep nuts.

I ordered some halters and as soon as they arrived I got to work.  I set up a largish pen in the paddock with a smaller pen inside, filled my pockets with nuts and off I went.

It took me a while (about a week) to complete “phase one” for the sheep to start coming to me and letting me put the halter on.  The next thing I did was gently walk them around the pen (phase two).  If they got spooked I let go of the halter.  If they didn’t I led them into the smaller pen.  Several weeks of training later and little by little I managed to get each and every one of our sheep (nine to be precise) used to the halter, and eventually I was able to tie them up in the smaller pen and actually do some work on them, hurrah!!  It was a huge turning point for us in our sheep management because now our sheep were “tame”, they trusted us and so we felt a huge weight had been taken off our shoulders.

If we needed the vet we no longer worried about having to chase a sheep around just to get it into a pen, if we needed to move them to another field we simply haltered them or better still, called them and they followed us.  Rounding up our flock became a pleasant and fun thing to do instead of anxiety provoking and as a result our flock became relaxed whenever we were around them.  We were happier and so were our flock.  And the best part of the “training” programme was that we got to know our sheep as individuals with unique personalities.  We noticed that Sparkle makes funny grunty noises when happy or excited, we noticed that Selene has a particular tickle spot on her back, we noticed that Sarka was very shy and timid and needed extra time to learn to trust us.  We learned so much that winter, and mostly (I personally) learnt the art of patience (something hubs claims he’s yet to witness).

So, fast forward a few years, and after doing hundreds of MOTs, the three monthly ritual is a doddle compared to those early days.  That said, it is physically hard work and very time consuming.  Admittedly not helped by us expanding our flock somewhat.

So sometimes I have a little dream about owning a “Combi clamp”.  This is a gentle device for restraining a sheep and allows you to all those things that you need to do to: dose, inject, trim hooves, dag etc.  Although our sheep are easy as pie to handle, there is one thing I still struggle with; inspecting the back hooves.  I can trim bottoms till the cows come home, I can get stuck into the front hooves, but for some reason the back hooves are really tricky to do.  The sheep go into full on reflex mode when I so much as go near those hooves, to say they are not keen would be an understatement, they make it plain that it is the most irritating thing in the world.  I usually end up half underneath the sheep, resting their knee on my thigh and doing whatever needs doing between the hoof flicking out randomly and usually narrowly missing my nose.  As the sheep is only loosely restrained by the halter it can start to hop around a bit or worse, pull back towards me at which point I end up with a sheep’s bottom on top of my head.  Not a great experience all round and quite frustrating for both of us.  I’ve usually resorted to filling a bucket with carrots and letting them munch away while I quickly work on them but this is not ideal as I don’t always have carrots and I’m not keen on using treats as it makes the sheep hyper and they come to expect it and so become anxious, you have to be careful with how you use treats.

adrian being combi clampSadly Combi clamps are over £3,000 so that dream will remain a dream for the time being, meanwhile Adrian has offered to be my Combi clamp.  He makes a good one, he has a patented technique for keeping a sheep in exactly the right position while I can do their back hooves with ease. It is almost a blissful experience for all of us.  Part of the “Adrian technique” is to hug the sheep (so “clamping” it) whilst giving it a back scratch in just the right spot.  At this point they go into a kind of trance and start to gaze off into the distance, stretching their necks out and licking their lips.  I am happy because I can work on their hooves and no longer risk being decapitated, but Adrian is probably happiest of all because he hasn’t got to fork out £3,000 for a Combi clamp, well not for the moment anyway!

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Bim the Wonder Hen

Since June, Bim has been suffering from egg peritonitis (see swollen hen), a common condition in hens of all ages for which the prognosis is usually death.  Given this poor prognosis, we asked the vet (who happened to be here looking at a sheep) to have a look.  We fully expected we’d be putting her down (Bim that is, not the vet).  That said, swelling aside, she looked really healthy and so we all thought it might be worth trying again.

The vet agreed with our plan and left us with a course of anti inflammatories and antibiotics.

Bim fit and healthy again
Bim fit and healthy again

Now, the problem is that while the antibiotics can deal with infections, they don’t really deal with the root cause (normally an egg yolk trapped in the abdominal cavity).  Nicole got on the internet to look for alternative approaches.  We also pondered alternatives to antibiotics – well we didn’t want to be giving her a jag every two days for the rest of her life.

We came up with an approach that incorporated a number of ideas.

  1. Warm baths with epsom salts.  These were mainly to help her feel better (we all love a good bath) as the condition causes a lot of swelling which looks pretty uncomfortable.  This is followed by a blow dry.  Bim loved this moving her wings to get an optimal flow.  We did this 2 or 3 times, basically while she was receiving her jags.
  2. A daily supplement which contains a mixture of garlic (two cloves per day), turmeric, black pepper, honey and olive oil.  Garlic and honey are natural antibiotics as well as being nutritious.  We also added to this a mineral boost containing calcium, probiotics and seaweed (you can buy this).
  3. A daily dose of Kali Phos, Bryonia and Hepar Sulf.
  4. Water – we added cider vinegar, multi vitamins and oregano.

The above sounds pretty complex, but it’s not really.  All the supplements can be mixed up and put in a bowl.  Bim, being the top hen, is always first to a bowl so, for us, it was fairly easy to make sure Bim got her “medicine”.  I say “us”, but it’s all down to Nicole really.

The net result of this is a that, for a time the swelling went down and Bim got back to being her old self.  When we wandered into the vet some time in July to pick up some sheep meds, the vet who had examined Bim happened to be standing there and asked how Bim was.  When Nicole said she had pretty much recovered, the vet’s jaw nearly hit the floor.  “That’s two miracles this year then” she said (or words to that effect).  I don’t think the vets can quite believe that Ymogen recovered from her broken jaw either (Ymogen’s Story).

Anyway, Bim was doing fine.  As she is about 5 years old, her laying days should be largely in the past.  However, a couple of weeks back, she went in to lay an egg.  Of course, no egg appeared, once again the yolk must have been “laid” internally.  Then she did it again and the swelling returned.  Despite all this, everything else about her was healthy.  You can tell when a hen’s time is close, they just stop.

Bim was starting to show signs of “stopping” in that she would still be in the hen coop at morning corn time.  We decided to give her another course of antibiotics.  At this time of year, laying drops markedly for all the hens.  The shortening days act as a kind of signal to stop laying.  The chances are Bim would stop laying and so might recover once any infection was treated.

The good news is that the swelling has gone again.  Bim has not had any garlic or natural supplements for a couple of weeks because she is now kind of wary of being caught again.  We are hoping that with the days shortening and her age, there will either be no more attempted laying for a while, or just sporadic attempts.  If she leaves enough time between eggs, then she should be able to reabsorb the internally laid yolk.

Nevertheless, she has survived much longer than predicted and we are now hopeful she’ll now make it through the winter.  After that, there’s a good chance she’ll be old enough not to lay any more and then could survive gracefully into old age.  Fingers crossed.