Progress with the hen “cuddle training” since my last blog story has been a slow. Mainly because I have been super busy holding the fort. Adrian took a full-time job at the start of the year which means that I’m juggling more plates on the smallholding. The hen cuddle training has continued but not as speedily as I had hoped when I started back in April.
This said, we have progressed a few things with the training; there is now a picnic table in the hen run where we can have our elevenses with our feathered friends and not get our bottoms wet anymore with sitting on the grass.
More recently, Adrian has done some nifty wall work. At the weekend he created a neat gap in the stone dyke which runs between our garden and the hen run. He did this in 27’c heat, and if dismantling huge rocks to form a gap wasn’t sweaty enough work, digging two deep holes to take the enormous gateposts was pretty impressive, hats off to Adrian!
Now we can enter the hen run much more quickly and easily. Previously we used a gate halfway down the orchard which meant carrying things like water and 20kg sacks of pellets etc was a right palaver. Not to mention balancing trays with tea and scones.
Now we can nip in and out of the hen run carrying our cups of tea and cake without danger of spilling our tea by the time we get there.
We still haven’t managed to pick up any hens other than Becky and Babs (and Cherokee the cockerel), but now we have better access and a posh picnic table, we hope that it won’t be long before our other hens become partial to cuddles too.
Last year we came to the realisation that our hens had gone a little too feral for our liking. This might not seem to be a problem on the surface of it, indeed if asked, the hens would probably say they had a lovely time with their wild camping expeditions and minimal interference from two legged creatures in wellies.
However, as smallholders we like to think our animals go some way towards paying for their keep. After all, the reason we have hens is so we can have eggs. Last summer though, it had got to the point where we had virtually no eggs whatsoever and were starting to question why we were spending a fortune on layers pellets and corn for a bunch of hens living out wild.
In the autumn we accidentally solved the egg mystery, we found a huge clutch nestled in a clump of sedge grass while moving the hen coops. Sadly we had to throw them out as they’d been there for months. The hens were not only sleeping wild in bushes, they were laying their eggs wild too and they’re very good at keeping the location of their nests secret. We never would have found those eggs if it hadn’t been for moving the coops.
This year, happily we have eggs again. The hens have reacquainted themselves with their coops and are laying for all they are worth, hoorah!
Orpingtons are rather prone to “dangle berries”, (dags). Their long, glamourous bottom feathers can easily get messy, and dirty bottoms isn’t a good situation. Unfortunately hens cannot reach round to preen their bottom feathers so unless we help them out, those dangle berries would get bigger and bigger and cause the hen a lot of distress, not to mention putting her at risk from fly strike.
So with frequent bottom patrols on the cards for the Orpingtons, this year we decided to schedule in daily cuddle training so that eventually we’d be able to pick up a hen without any drama. We have kind of managed this already with Cherokee the cockerel. He has foot problems and the frequent work we do on him means he doesn’t fly into a blind panic when we give him his pedicures.
From a broader perspective, we’ve always maintained that to get the most out of livestock and build a good relationship, the best thing is to spend quality time with your animals on a daily basis. There are no shortcuts because it takes time and consistency to build up trust. But once you’ve got to the point where your animals allow you into their space, it’s really special. It also makes life a lot easier if you have to help them out of pickles (frequently in the case of sheep), or give them medication, usually this is an injection. It can be quite distressing for example if your sheep tenses up whilst giving it a jag. Their energy feeds off our energy and creates a negative feedback loop. Coming into the pen for any sort of treatment, let alone an injection becomes a negative experience. Far better to help out an animal who’s already used to our presence and relaxed in our company. It makes handling livestock a million times better for everyone involved.
So we have made space in our day to cuddle-train the hens. The plan is to have a cup of tea with our feathered friends at 11am daily and allow their natural curiosity to overcome their shyness. Hens are very inquisitive, and they’re also experts at sniffing out snacks. We make sure we bring them raisins and other little treats and sprinkle these around whilst enjoying our cuppas. We’ve hurdled off an area where we can sit with them and have even ordered a picnic bench to make the cuddle corner extra comfy. The hurdles will make things easier when we start picking them up.
We’ve thought carefully about our strategy and decided to start off working on one hen, the more confident of the Orpingtons, Becky McPecky. She’s a natural born leader and one day she’ll probably rule the roost when our current lady boss Clippy decides to retire. Working with a naturally confident hen will bring the others in, they’ll watch and learn (well that’s the idea anyway).
So far the cuddle training has gone well and I’ve written up a little diary of the milestones so far:
7th April: Started training. Brought out a tray out with a cup of tea and toast for me and treats for the girls (and Cherokee). Most of the hens came into the pen and hoovered up the treats around my feet. Some of the shy girls stayed on the outside but seemed more curious than nervous. Threw some treats to the shy girls to build their confidence.
15th April: Picked up Becky McPecky. She was a bit non-plussed but I rewarded her with a raisin. Kept my hand on her back to prevent her from flapping and let her know not to worry. (A hand on the back done the right way helps to calm a flappy hen).
19th April: Picked up Becky McPecky again, this time I could take my hand off her back and she stayed on my lap. Rewarded her with 3 raisins and some corn. Let her hop off in her own time.
23rd April: Thought I had picked up Becky McPecky but realised it was Babs Bikini Bottom. Realised this when said hen was more flappy than usual. On putting her down I noticed her neatly trimmed bottom feathers. (I have started trimming the Orpington’s bottom feathers and have so far got round to doing two; Babs and Belinda). On a side note, since my blog story about washing hens’ bottoms, I’ve read that it’s fine to trim the bottom feathers rather than wash them and this is actually advisable because once trimmed, the feathers will stay short all through the summer).
So far all’s going well and I’ll continue to record my progress. By the end of the summer I hope all our hens will be happy to be picked up and cuddled. I hope to find their individual tickle spots and learn more about their unique personalities and characters.
For the past few months we’ve been bringing our friendly cockerel Cherokee into the kitchen to perform a minor procedure on his feet.
It all started one day last summer when we noticed him looking a bit down. On inspection, we discovered a nodule on each foot between his toes.
We suspected these might be “dirt pockets” on the soles of his feet which had pushed up and formed bumps, but we would need a closer look.
Now Cherokee is a laid back sort of a chap, but he does have rather large spurs. As we hadn’t handled him very often, we decided it would be wise to collect him from the coop at night so he’d be sleepy. With a bit of luck he wouldn’t mind us prodding and poking his feet.
That evening, we waited till it got dark and the hens had gone to bed, then we tiptoed out with our head torches set to to the red light (which isn’t so intrusive). We carefully removed the roof from the coop whilst trying not to drop any of the little clips in the grass. After a bit of kerfuffle, I had Cherokee under my arm and we were able to bring him indoors.
Once in the kitchen, we popped a little hood on his head so he wouldn’t wake up and got to work inspecting his feet.
Sure enough, Cherokee had two dirt pockets, one on each foot. These “pockets” can appear on chickens for no apparent reason (in our experience at least), we’ve only had one other case of “dirt pockets” all the while we’ve kept chickens. The pockets form over time by dirt settling into small creases in the webbing between the toes and then compacting to form “pockets”. These pockets need to be emptied regularly otherwise they can cause discomfort and possibly become infected, it’s one of those things you need to keep an eye on.
Since then, we’ve brought Cherokee in regularly to empty his dirt pockets. He’s become so used to it that we no longer have to wait until night time which makes life a lot easier.
We pick him from wherever he happens to be and whisk him in. These days we no longer have to put his little hood on and we’ve noticed that he likes to watch what we’re doing which is a little unnerving and cute at the same time. He keeps his beady eye on us, stretches his feet out and looks at me intently as I push the pockets inside out and ease the dirt out. It’s very satisfying work, especially if the clod pings out in one go. Then, I clean the pockets with a cotton bud dipped in diluted cider vinegar and carry him outside again to join his ladies.
Our chicks who hatched last summer have grown into big, beautiful hens. It sounds cliche, but it’s hard to imagine they were once inside eggs.
When we collected our box of fertile eggs from a local farm last May we were told they were “Black Orpingtons”. I confess, we’re not too clued up on hen breeds, we just wanted to give our broody lady (MMJ) some chicks.
As the chicks grew and developed, we realised they were quite different from our resident flock. For starters, they never seemed to stop growing and although we still call them “the bibbles”, they are huge compared to the other hens. They are almost as big as Cherokee the cockerel, not that he seems to mind.
Having subsequently looked up the breed, we discovered that Orpingtons are broad and heavy with a low stance, have extremely fluffy feathers and are naturally friendly. Our “bibbles” are definitely all of this, particularly with regard to the fluffiness. In fact, their feathers are so fluffy (particularly in the bottom area) that we have noticed they can be prone to “dags”.
I should point out at this point that taking an interest in our livestock’s droppings is a bit of a favourite subject of mine. A animal’s bottom can say a lot about its state of health. A “daggy bottom” is usually a red flag because it can signify worms or a digestive issue. So, after initially panicking a little, I soon realised that in the case of our Orpingtons, the dags were not diarreah based, they were normal droppings which had over time left a residue on their fluffier than fluffy tail feathers.
Having sheep we are familiar with dags, we are frequently trimming bottoms and keeping the teddy bears clean. But dagging hens needs to be approached a little differently.
Hen feathers have veins running through them (well, up to the first inch or so), so snipping them needs to be done with caution. But anyway, “dags” lurk around the base of the feathers so snipping wouldn’t really help. The best thing to do is to pop the hen in a bath and give her bottom a wash.
We had planned to do this a couple of weeks ago, dags have to be dealt with quickly because as you can imagine they can make a hen feel pretty uncomfortable. But more importantly, dags attract flies, the dreaded greenbottle (Blowfly) is just as happy to lay its eggs on a sheep or a hen’s bottom, it is not fussy. Left untreated, death can swiftly result as the maggots start burrowing into its host. It’s not a pleasant way to go.
Just as soon as we had booked our hens into the diary for a spa morning, (a bucket of warm water in the kitchen followed by a blowdry), we were hit by a freezing weather front. Not ideal weather for bathing chickens. Admittedly, even though we were washing them in the kitchen and following up with a blowdry, we weren’t too happy about carrying out this operation in freezing weather. We weighed things up over a cup of tea and decided to go ahead anyway. The cold snap was due to last a couple of weeks and we didn’t want our “bibbles” walking about with daggy bottoms for any longer than they had to.
So while Adrian set up a dog crate next in the kitchen next to the aga, preheated some soft towels and popped the kettle on the stove, I nipped out to get the first “bibble”.
I should say at this point, friendly as our bibbles are, they’re not exactly tame yet, as in, we haven’t got to the point where we can just go and pick one up. But I had a plan, thanks to our large, “walk-in Omlet hen run” which we built last summer, I was able to herd the hens into the run, corner my target and scoop her up. Amidst plenty of squawking I tucked a slightly indignant bibble under my jacket and zoomed back indoors before she had time to realise what was happening.
Once in the kitchen I sat down for a moment to let her acclimatise and relax. I also took a moment to peel off my winter layers; bobble hat, coat, scarf, gloves and boots … Then, with Adrian at the ready in case Bibble made a break for it, I gently lowered her into the bucket of warm water. I made sure her bottom was submerged and waited a few moments so she could get used to to this new sensation. She relaxed very quickly and I was able to get to work massaging the daggy bits from her tail feathers and peeling the clumps off. The warm water made this easy, the clumps dissolved and after about ten minutes our first bibble had a delightfully clean bottom.
We lifted her out of the water, gently wrapped her in a warm towel, and gave her a blowdry. We found it easier to do this with her in the dog crate standing freely. This meant I was able to run my fingers through her feathers and get the warm air flowing exactly where it was needed without having to hold her at the same time. She seemed to enjoy the feeling of the hairdryer and started to preen herself as I worked away. For a first time visit to the beauty salon, our Bibble did us proud!
Over the following few days we did all the bibbles’ bottoms and they all took it in their strides, they particularly enjoyed the hairdryer experience. We hope to continue handling them over the coming weeks so that subsequent spa experiences will be even easier.
Over the weekend while Adrian has been busy adding a shrubbery to the hen run, my job has been to get the veggie patch ready for planting. Spring is nearly upon us and our seeds are sitting in their little packets on the kitchen shelf just bursting to get out and transform themselves into plants. We have carrots, beetroot, turnips, parsnips kale, cabbage, pumpkin, tomatoes, spinach and different types of salads all waiting to go into the ground.
The veggie patch has been left practically untouched since the autumn, Adrian mulched a couple of beds in November and planted some garlic, but since then it’s been left to its own devices.
As a result the weeds which took residence last summer were still very much there, and of course, there were plenty of old stalks left over too.
I knew I was in for a long haul so on Saturday morning, I booted up, rolled up my sleeves and got stuck in.
After digging out endless piles of nettle roots and couch grass, (I don’t remember seeing that last year!) six docks, zillions of buttercups and willowherb, I got the weeding and clearing done by the end of the day.
I quite enjoy weeding if I’m honest and the weather was fairly sunny which made the job much more bearable. It’s still cold as we’re only in February, but there’s a hint of early spring in the air and a feeling of things about to burst into growth which I love. I saw lots of compost worms as I was weeding away which was very heart warming, I love worms, they do such a great job and we’ve built up quite a population over the last few years.
We use the “no dig” method so apart from weeding, we don’t dig the soil, we just pile on mulch every year and let the worms do the rest. The result has been a huge increase in worms and a really lovely crumbly soil, much improved from when we first dug our veggie patch out five years ago.
Now all that there is left to do before the “big planting ceremony”, is to add several tons of rotted down sheep dung to the freshly weeded beds. I’ll be doing this on Thursday and using the big pile of dung that I heaped up after deep cleaning the sheep shed last month.
There’s a job we should probably do every year but it usually ends up being every two years or even every three or dare I admit it, every four. This is because it’s not the most exciting of jobs and nor is it necessarily an urgent job. It’s one of those jobs that you can happily turn a blind eye to and walk on by. In fact, I like to remind myself that putting off this particular task can make things easier when we eventually get round to doing it.
So what am I talking about? Yes my friends, it involves sheep dung, and it involves large quantities of it. I’m talking about deep cleaning the sheep shed.
During the winter months our happy teddy bears spend a lot of time hanging around their shed. They have a big shed, conveniently positioned next to the hay feeders. It’s like a living room, kitchen arrangement for our woolly friends. Although the sheep have access to the wider pastures on the hills, during the winter months when they’re on hay they trundle down to the orchard every evening, munch their hay, sprinkle it all about while doing so and then spend the night in the shed enjoying a cosy time out of the elements. The sheep are very happy with this arrangement, they live a practically stress-free existence and the shed is a big part of this.
This is all very well, but the downside of the shed arrangement is that it can get really messy. Sheep go to the toilet wherever they happen to be. They are not like pigs who would never dream of going to the loo in their shed. Sheep do their business wherever they happen to be.
Every afternoon I go along with my fabulous “Dungbeetle” sh*t shoveller which I got for my birthday recently. This is a great piece of kit, it takes an impressive amount of dung and I can get the orchard and shed cleaned up in next to no time time compared to my old “shoveller”. Plus I don’t get the back and arm ache which is a bonus!
But despite my efforts shovelling dung into the trailer each day, a small amount manages to somehow build up, secretly and stealthily like a woodland fungus, so slowly that it goes almost undetected. Until one day you walk into the shed and wonder why you’re scraping your head on the ceiling.
This phenomenon is probably common to farmers and smallholders and there might be a name for it out there somewhere. Despite shovelling copious amounts of dung and bedding each day and keeping the shed clean and tidy, a huge amount still manages to mysteriously build up behind your back. The fact of the matter is, I know I said earlier that this is a job that can be happily put off, when it gets to the point where you’re scraping your head on the ceiling, you know it’s time to roll up your sleeves!
As the shed is pretty sizeable, I break down the deep-clean by doing a small area at a time. Every day I take my special tool, (I’m not sure what it’s officially called but it’s perfect for prising up compacted slabs of ancient manure). Once the prongs go down, I can leaver up satisfyingly large chunks and fling them onto the muck heap. Once I’ve finished I’ll shovel the manure into a trailer and quad it over to the vegetable patch to use a a mulch.
I’ve been working on this every day for the last two months. It’s tiring, but hugely satisfying and there’s a real sense of “before and after”. Also, sometimes I find things like lambing tail rings, or ancient bits of bailer twine hiding away in the “dung cake” which is weirdly nostalgic. I mentioned earlier that this job is easier if you leave it for as long as possible. The reason for this is because the thicker the wodges, the easier they are to prise away. If the slabs are too thin, they crumble into nothing which is very disappointing.
I have only a little way to go now, I’m hoping to have the deep-clean completed by next week. Then I can pretend not to notice the slow stealth as it creeps back over the next three years!
Since I whisked her into the vets for an operation at the beginning of January (where the vet found nothing untoward), we’ve been scratching our heads wondering what could be causing poor Pepper’s crop problems.
Since her operation, Pepper’s been convalescing in the kitchen in a dog crate where she can stay warm and safe until she gets better.
Since my last story and after chatting with the vet, we’ve given Pepper “Flubenvet” which is a poultry wormer, in a little dropper into her beak over the course of seven days. The vet didn’t think she had worms, but said worming her wouldn’t do her any harm. We were willing to try anything. We also gave her “Beryl’s Friendly Bacteria” which is especially for hens to help her post-antibiotic tummy.
Pepper doesn’t have much appetite but every day she eats a small amount of chick mash, scrambled eggs or porridge and drinks some water. We massage her crop daily and monitor her droppings. Each morning we check her crop to see if it has emptied overnight. Pepper’s crop continues to feel like a ping pong ball in the mornings but she seems relatively perky and continues to have some appetite. She’s still going to the toilet despite her blockage which means that some food must be passing through.
We continue to hope. However, Pepper’s morning crop situation is worrying and every day at 7.30am when we give her fresh bedding and her morning cuddle we desperately hope to find her crop empty. A chicken’s crop is like a storage bag, it sits under the right breast and fills up during the day as the hen goes about her business foraging. Food collected in the crop then trickles into the gizzard and then on into the digestive system. By morning the crop should be empty and the hen house full of droppings from the previous day’s foraging.
Over the days Pepper hasn’t made a lot of progress but seems perky-ish and enjoys daily trips to the polytunnel where she has an hour or so to stretch her legs and scratch for worms. We were so happy to see her eating worms and scratching around the first time we took her in.
Last weekend Pepper turned a corner. On Saturday morning her crop had emptied, I jumped for joy! Pepper spent Saturday and Sunday looking much happier and more lively and really enjoyed herself in the polytunnel. If it wasn’t for the fact that underneath her feathers she was very thin, Pepper looked for all the world like her old healthy self.
Sadly though, since last weekend, Pepper’s perkiness has started to wane. She has become more tired and droopy as each day has passed. Her crop has gone back to feeling like a ping-pong ball again in the mornings and Adrian and I are preparing to say goodbye to our dear feathered friend.
I carried Pepper into the polytunnel today but she just stood on the soil and closed her eyes.
I brought her back indoors and gave her some beetroot soup with a dropper but she has spent most of today asleep. She is getting more wobbly on her legs and we have to take care when placing her back in her dog crate hen house so that she doesn’t topple over.
We are making her as comfortable as we can and keeping her hydrated, but sadly Pepper is fading. There is only so much we can do.
For a wee while now one of our elderly hen ladies, Pepper hasn’t been quite her usual self. The signs were subtle, in fact, there was only one sign, her tail feathers weren’t as perky as they usually are. We weren’t unduly worried because she’d gone through a hard moult in November along with the other hens. Hens can feel a bit depressed when they lose their feathers, particularly if the weather’s bad. We thought she’d perk up once her plumage grew back. We were also not too worried because she wasn’t displaying the usual signs of hen illness; her comb was a bright healthy shade of red, her bottom was clean and fluffy and she had a good appetite. She was also feisty (Pepper is second in command to Clippy the top hen), and she was still merrily bossing the other hens around along with Clippy and keeping order in the flock.
Then, one morning a couple of weeks ago I noticed Pepper wasn’t eating her corn. She was running in for it and claiming her position next to Clippy to get the biggest beakful, but she wasn’t actually eating any, just moving it around on the ground. Alarm bells ringing, I scooped her up and brought her indoors. The first thing I did was feel her crop, it should be empty first thing in the morning but Pepper’s was full and the size of a large golf ball. She was also quite thin. I was relieved and upset at the same time. I was glad to have found the source of her discomfort, but upset because an impacted crop would need operating on, and sod’s law, it was 2nd Jan, bank holiday in Scotland.
… within a few minutes I had Pepper in a box and Adrian was de-icing my car. Having spent three seconds philosophising about how these things always seem to happen at weekends, I’d rung the emergency vet and booked Pepper in for a crop op.
A crop operation entails a small incision into the crop and the offending blockage being removed. It’s done under a local anaesthetic and usually takes about 15 minutes.
Once at the vet’s we got started, I held Pepper in position and the vet got to work. When the crop was opened, we were both a little surprised to see only corn. No bailer twine, no ball of hay, no bunch of feathers. Truth be told we were strangely disappointed, we had expected a big plug of something to plop out, like pulling out a bunch of hairs from the plug hole.
We were a little mystified because Pepper should have been able to digest the corn in her crop, it was soft and should have been able to pass through into her gizzard without any problem.
Pushing that niggling worry into the back of my mind for the moment, I set off for home with Pepper stitched up and looking quite perky considering.
We put her in the kitchen by the aga in a dog crate and monitored her. The first thing she did was drink lots of water. That’s good we thought. Later that day, we offered her a tiny amount of softened chick mash in a mini cup which she ate and enjoyed.
The next day Pepper was looking perkier and we offered her a tiny amount of scrambled egg which again she enjoyed. Later in the evening she had some more softened up mash.
On day three it was sunny and relatively warm. After some thought over a cup of tea, we decided to put Pepper outside so she could be with her friends. It’s always a fine balance when taking care of sick animals, how much we intervene as humans is something we’re always considering. Hens are sociable creatures and we reckoned being with her friends would lift her spirits. Not only this, but hens love lazing about in the sun and it was a mild, sunny day. Indeed, as soon as we put Pepper out, she joined her pals for a catch up and a sunbathe and looked happy as can be. That evening Pepper was still looking happy and the weather was still mild so we thought we’d leave her to sleep in the hen house with the flock. We watched her go to roost and made sure she’d hopped onto a perch. Then we went indoors and had a cup of tea.
The following morning I went to check up on Pepper. I waited by the coops as the sun slowly rose. The auto-doors were set to open just before sunrise at 7.30am. As the doors opened I watched the hens come down the ladder one by one. All of them trouped out except for Pepper. My heart sank, quick as a flash I ran round the back of the coop and whipped the back panel off and there she was was, sprawled on the floor. I felt dreadful, what a terrible hen mum I am I thought as the tears started. But then I saw a small movement, Pepper was alive! I carefully picked her up and brought her back indoors. We wrapped her up in a blanket and then gave her breakfast, tiny bits of fat from last night’s slow cooked beef dinner, a small amount of porridge and a small amount of scrambled egg. Pepper quickly perked up and spent the rest of the day in the kitchen getting small amounts to eat and lots of cuddles.
Pepper continued to improve slowly, but as the days went by I started to get a little concerned that her crop wasn’t emptying as fast as it should be. She was going to the toilet (albeit on the runny side – post antibiotic tummy), but each morning her crop didn’t feel as empty as it should be.
Not having had crop problems in our flock before I made the mistake of googling “crop issues in hens”. Two things came up; impacted crop and sour crop. There was little else about crops not emptying except a brief reference to capillary worms which can affect the digestive system and stop things working properly. I pondered this info and by the end of the day I had convinced myself Pepper had gigantic capillary worms.
The following day and thinking more clearly I rang the vet for advice. I wasn’t convinced anymore about worms, Pepper’s comb was looking too healthy for there to be a worm problem. The vet and I chatted about Pepper and he told me that sadly only about 50% of hens with impacted crops get better. Out of the 50% who don’t respond to treatment the problem is usually due to something underlying like a tumour.
The vet also agreed it was unlikely to be worms, but that it wouldn’t do any harm to worm her. So we decided to give Pepper flubenvet in a little dropper every day, just to make sure. We’re also giving her probiotics (special ones for hens), and keeping her spirits up with regular cuddles and strokes.
We’re taking each day as it comes, fingers crossed for our dear hennie.
Up until recently we’ve had week upon week of rain, followed by … yet more rain. On a farm or smallholding, where there’s rain there’s mud, particularly where livestock likes to congregate. All through the autumn mud has featured heavily around the hay feeders, entrances to gates and along our woolly friends’ favourite paths. (Did you know sheep create little paths to get from A to B)?
Trudging through mud is no fun, not for us in our wellies, but even less so for the sheep who don’t have the luxury of boots. Not surprisingly they’ve been spending much of their time in the shed cudding and peering out into the gloom.
Last week the rain gave way to frost and we’ve all breathed a sigh of relief. The sheep are happy sunbathing on the hill again and we’re no longer slipping and sliding about. Nor are we getting in a tangle with items of clothing dangling from chairs and draped over the aga in various stages of drying off.
But then, as a reminder that resting on laurels isn’t something you can do in this farming life, we’ve had a sudden spate of lame sheep. Undoubtedly caused by the wet pastures which softens hooves, bacteria lurking in the soil enters the sensitive internal structures under the soles and causes an abscess. The signs are easy to spot, a sheep with a foot infection will limp and have an unhappy demeanour about her. If not treated straight away she will have trouble standing and will resort to grazing whilst resting on her front knees.
With Violet, Ynca, Yssi and Shelby all limping this week, I’ve been out every other day with my first aid kit. I like keeping our sheep’s hooves in good nick so I have a little bag (a bucket actually) specifically for looking after hooves.
When treating a lame sheep, the first thing I do is see how the sheep is walking and work out which hoof is the one I need to look at. Then I’ll bring the sheep into a pen and start by checking the hoof for little stones or anything else which might be causing the sheep to limp. Then I’ll clean the hoof up and scrape away any mud. Next, I’ll cradle the foot in my hand for a moment or so to check for temperature. A foot infection will cause a little heat and this is quite discernible, especially if you compare the infected hoof with a non-infected hoof.
If I suspect there’s an infection I’ll spray the hoof with anti-bac spray, especially the interdigital space (the gap between the toes). Then, I’ll give the sheep an antibiotic injection, I like using Betamox LA for feet as it gets to work quite quickly.
Violet, Ynca and Shelby are all fine now, it’s just Yssi who is still limping. I’ll be going out again later today to check up on her and give her another wee “jag” if necessary. Betamox is given every two days until the infection clears so fingers crossed Yssi will be feeling better soon.
In the sheep world, Ryelands are often referred to as “teddy bear sheep”. The reason for this, as you might have guessed, is their striking resemblance to roly poly teddy bears. Most sheep have wool only on their backs, with their faces, tummies and legs remaining almost bare. The Ryeland however has wool all over and can cause shearers to go a little pale. It can be tricky to shear those woolly faces, tummies and legs and it takes longer too.
One of our jobs in making sure our Ryelands are happy and healthy is to keep their bottoms and faces trimmed. During the summer months it’s especially important to keep their bottoms neat because woolly bottoms attract flies and flies are bad news for sheep, especially the blow flow. We don’t use chemicals on our little lot so we take special care to keep their rear ends spick and span at all times.
We also keep their faces trimmed. If we don’t trim around their eyes, they can become ‘wool blind’ (where the wool grows around their eyes preventing them from seeing). Being ‘wool blind’ makes sheep unhappy as they like to be able to see what’s happening around them in order to feel safe. Sheep have surprisingly good vision, they can see all around them, almost 360 degrees. If they have wool growing around their eyes they can get nervous and twitchy because they lose the ability to check for predators which is an important part of being a sheep.
It’s a lot of work trimming all those faces and bottoms, (and not to mention hooves), so we rotate through the flock each week and work on three or four at a time. Yesterday it was Yaar, Seline, Scarlett and Vera’s turn for hair cuts.
Adrian and I have got a little hair salon set up in the orchard, we put together some hurdles and bring the sheep in one at a time. They seem to quite enjoy it and we have no trouble bringing them in. It’s a good opportunity for us to catch up with the flock and spend quality time with our teddies.