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Clever Sheep

Ymogen coloured ryeland

Hi there, it’s me Ymogen!

It’s been a while since I logged on but recently my pet human took a short video of me demonstrating my intelligence so I thought it would be a good time to tell you all about it.

You’re probably aware that us sheep are herd animals and like to do things as a group.  If Seline heads off up the hill we’ll all follow her.  If Sparkle gets spooked by a pheasant popping up out of a clump of sedge grass and flapping its wings, we’ll all get a bit spooked.  That’s just how we are, its in our nature.

But I’m going to let you into secret, us sheep are not such simple souls as people like to think, in fact, we’re very clever!  As well has having the herd instinct we also have the voice recognition instinct.  Have you ever watched a group of lambs and their mums?  Each mum has a special call for her lambs so each lamb knows exactly which mum to head over to for teat.  (Sometimes a lamb might take liberties and sneak over to one of their aunties for teat but once they get butted away by a cross auntie they soon learn their lesson!  But anyway, I digress.

Ever since I was born here at Auchenstroan, I’ve noticed our pet humans calling us using different sounds for each one of us, just like our mums.  So over time we’ve learnt a whole different language, “human speak”, as well as our own “sheep speak”.  And just like when we were lambs, we get a nice treat if we trot over to the humans when called, sheep nuts! 😊 😊 😊 Or, our second favourite thing, back scratches 😊 😊

In the video below you can see me demonstrating this.  My pet human says my name, I hear her but can’t see her (admittedly I was quite interested in a particular blade of grass at that moment).  But I couldn’t help myself, I found myself looking from left to right, and then I saw the human standing there with Witchy bleating by her side.  I had a wee shake and then headed right over and got a back scratch for my efforts.  Ta daa!

 

 

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New trough welcome in hot weather

sheep having a drink

Despite living in what is generally considered to be a wet part of Britain, we do have prolonged dry spells.  In fact, for the last 3 years, there have weeks of dry weather in the spring.

Since moving here, we have added two water tanks to gather water from hillside springs.  But these springs dry up in the dry weather and if we’re not careful, we have to ferry water up from the river.  This year, just before the dry spell hit, we got a new 550 litre trough installed adding extra capacity.

When they first saw it, the sheep were startled; they are not keen on new things appearing unexpectedly.  But as the rain stopped and the sun came out, they have found it to be another useful drinking spot.

I think, over coming years, we might add further capacity till we have enough water to last for months rather than weeks.

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Sheep vaccinations go well

sheep waiting for vaccination

One of the annual responsibilities we have as smallholders is to vaccinate the sheep.  Each year, they get an injection of Heptavac.  The interesting challenge is how best to do it without getting the sheep overexcited.  We have, in the past, used sheep nuts to misidrect them while they are injected, but then the rest of the flock gather round barging each other trying to get in.  Last year, in all the argy bargy, Ymogen suffered a broken jaw.  This year, we were determined to avoid that kind of accident.

We also had to make sure the wiser of our sheep did not clock what was going on and keep well clear.  Bluemli, particularly, can tell when we are up to something and will stay well clear of any pens.

We hatched our plans.  First, all the sheep were gathered into the shed.  This involved a little bribery in the form of sheep nuts.  However, these were in a trough so they were all able to get some.

We built a small pen right outside the shed with a sliding door, well a sheep hurdle we could move out of the way, to let them in.  They all lined up to see what we were up to (see picture).  On opening the entrance, the first sheep obligingly stepped through.  I held them tight while Nicole administered the injection.  It went like clockwork.  Each time we opened the pen, a sheep wandered in, got their injection and was ushered out into the paddock.

One or two sheep tried to play the bucking bronco card, but all in all it was very peaceful.  So peaceful, in fact, that the vaccinated sheep gathered round to watch their colleagues getting injected.

All in all, it took about an hour do vaccinate our 19 sheep.  We retired for a cuppa very pleased with ourselves.

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Yukky Weather for Sheep

sheep sheltering from snow storm

Hiya!!  Ymogen here, or Ymo as they sometimes call me.  It has been a while but I’m still here, happy as ever.  HOWEVER, the weather has been vile.  What can I say?  We seem to have had endless storms.  A mixture of high winds, rain, sleet and snow has made it totally miserable out here.  And when the wind finally stopped, we had snow, then rain, then snow, then rain, then snow, then rain.  It just went on and on.  It got pretty muddy in places, let me tell you.

Needless to say, none of us sheep were impressed.  Thankfully, we have two good shelters.  At the moment, our preferred shelter is what the humans call the lambing shed.  It’s where I was born and it’s large and spacious.  It also has the hay feeders nearby and a water trough inside the shelter.  We have been crowding in there a lot of the time.  When the weather has been ultra bad, we have not even dared ventured out to eat.  Luckily, the female human, Nicole, has also been giving us personal hay in the shed.

It’s a relief to be out of the rain, but we do tend to get a bit bored being stuck in here, even if it is our own choice.  I think I am the most put out, to be honest.  I’m always up for heading out to the grassy fields.  Much better out there than all the argy bargy round the feeders.  I mean, me and Yndia, we’re quite small and petite really.  Not to say that we won’t stand our ground, but it’s just all much more fun out in the fields.  And even though the weather hase been vile, the grass has been growing yum yum.

Anyway, here’s a piccie of me just in case you’d forgotten what I look like.

Ymogen coloured ryeland
It’s me
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Sheep get haircuts and health checks

It’s a long time since our flock were sheared, 7 months to be precise!  Plenty of time for a sheep of a woolly persuasion to get a touch of the ‘woolly eyes’!!

This basically means it’s time for a wee face trim.

There’s more to this than just aesthetics, if the wool growth is such that the sheep can no longer see properly this is quite stressful for the animal.  Sheep rely on good eyesight to keep watch for predators, especially to the sides and back whilst they’re grazing.  If wool growth stops this they can become jumpy and nervous.

I really enjoy trimming sheep’s faces, it’s a satisfying job and over the years I’ve learned a few tricks to keep them calm and relaxed while I do it.  I have to keep them still while I do the haircuts which is easier said than done and has taken many years of practise.  The method which works for me is to pen each sheep up individually and then tie the animal to a hurdle using a halter and lead rope.  Our flock is used to the halter and lead rope, I give them ‘halter training’ lessons from a young age and it’s really paid off when it comes to handling them.

So, with the sheep haltered and in position, I gently support their chin with one hand, (this stops them from moving forwards), and with the other hand I carefully snip away the wool from around their eyes.  Then, while I have them penned up I also check their bottoms and hooves.  It takes me about 20 minutes per sheep, I never rush this job because it’s a good time to bond with the sheep and it gives me the opportunity to spot anything which needs attention.

Yzzy

Today while I was working on Yzzy I noticed she was passing dung through both passages, front and back so to speak.  This wasn’t too much of a surprise as when Yzzy was a lamb she was born with a condition fairly common in newborn lambs, no anus.  The vet had had to come out and make an incision and within minutes she was fine.  The incision was basically a new back passage and would mean Yzzy could grow up and lead a normal life, she just wouldn’t be allowed to have lambs.

But today it seemed she had created a new passage, one which shouldn’t be there. I mulled it over and pondered what to do.  She didn’t seem to be in pain, we would have noticed if she was because sheep tend to go off on their own and hang their heads and look obviously depressed.  She had displayed none of these behaviours.  As with most things concerning animal health, its always a good idea to think things over carefully before intervening.  When to intervene and whether to intervene are questions which continually run through our heads when faced with situations like this.  My instinct told me not to intervene but to keep an eye on her.  I spoke to Adrian over lunch and we thought we’d ring the vet just to double check.  The vet agreed with us, to leave well alone, it was likely that more complications could occur through intervention so unless she was in pain, then the advice was to do nothing.  So we’ll keep Yzzy on our radar and hope she stays happy and healthy.  As they say, there is never a dull moment when keeping sheep although I would probably replace ‘dull moment’ with ‘ a moment without a worry’!

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The burden of leadership

Selene leader

Hi, Selene here.  As you might already know, Peaches, our leader for some years, passed away last month.  Having felt that I have been deputy for a while, I thought it only natural that the mantle of flock leader should fall upon my shoulders.  Well, it can’t be that difficult, I thought to myself.  Peaches made it look easy.

However, I find myself facing a couple of challenges.  The first is that I am never quite sure what to do each morning.  It’s the middle of winter and the weather can be pretty harsh around here.  We have shelters we can use and our favourite is down the hill near the humans’ house.  There are feeders full of hay there too and the ground has a stony covering, so it’s a good place to hang out.

Up near the top of the fields
Up near the top of the fields

The problem is, after we’ve had breakfast, I’m sometimes not quite sure what to do next.  Should we hang about round the hay and shelter?  Or should we head up into the fields?  The fields are good because they are quite dry.  No matter how much it rains, there are areas that are dry and don’t get muddy.  There’s also quite a lot of grass even though it’s January.  Not like last year!   Or was it the year before?  Hmmm (or should I say meh).  Anyway, we do like to head up to the top of the fields where we can chill out and chew the cud.

Sometimes, while I am pondering what to do, Ursi can get a bit impatient.  Before I know it, we are butting heads and the problem of where to hang out is quickly forgotten.  I am not sure whether Ursi, who’s quite a big girl, wants to take over or whether she’s bored.  Either way, I have to win the headbutting contest.  The problem is, Ursi just won’t give up.  Sometimes, Yzzy tries to get between us, but Ursi will have none of it.  A step back, lower the head and then biff.

I think the humans have spotted this because lately, they have been leading us up into the fields mid morning.

Anyway, this leadership lark is a bit trickier than I thought.  Maybe it will get easier in the spring when we can sleep out more.  I hope so.

 

 

 

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RIP Peaches

The last few days have been cold and yesterday, we took advantage of the frozen ground to lay an area of hardcore around the sheep’s hay feeders.  The frozen ground meant that the tractor did not do too much damage to the ground.

Before starting, we moved the sheep out into the fields to keep them out of the way.  On finishing, we allowed the sheep back and it was then we noticed that there was something not quite right with Peaches.  It was not entirely unexpected, Peaches’ condition had not been good for some time.  She had, in the summer, been checked over by the vet but there was nothing obvious wrong.  Peaches was the oldest of our sheep and was approaching her 9th birthday so we thought this lack of condition might be age related.  We had been giving Peaches small supplements to ensure she was getting enough to eat, but her condition never really improved.

Peaches leads the sheep down the path
Peaches leading the sheep down the path to the hay

Yesterday, Peaches was separating herself from the flock.  This is often a sign of a sheep that is unwell.  We offered Peaches some chopped turnips and while she ate a little, she didn’t seem to be her usual self.  We called the vet out to have a look.  The vet found a little blood in Peaches’ poo and said that her stomach seemed a little bloated.  However, there was no obvious sign of anything serious.  Peaches was showing no sign of anemia meaning fluke and worms were discounted.  The vet did hint that there might be something wrong internally such as a tumour, but that it was hard to tell.

The vet administered a few injections to help Peaches with any pain or infection and also to help get her digestion moving.  Having been very tolerant of all the handling and needle pricks, once out of the treatment pen, Peaches was off like a shot up the hill.  We continued to keep an eye out and she did seem to be eating hay from the feeders later in the day.  However, she was still kind of keeping her distance from the flock.

Sadly, this morning, we found Peaches had passed away in the night.  She had passed away in her sleep and lay, looking very peaceful, in one of the field shelters.  Peaches was the flock’s matriarch and was a gentle leader.  We shall all miss her.

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It’s time for Hay

sheep at hay feeders

Around late October, early November the grass pretty much stops growing and loses most of its nutritional value.  For sheep, that means its time for hay.  This year, the late autumn was pretty mild so the sheep chose to stay out for grass a bit later, well into November in fact.

Peaches leads the sheep down the path
Peaches leads the sheep down the path

Nevertheless, we got the hay feeders cleaned up and the hay ready.  We’ve moved the feeders nearer the house this year.  It means it’s all much closer to the hay store making things easier for us.

It also means the sheep have access to the lambing shed as a winter shelter.  In fact, they now have two field shelters so they are spoilt for choice.

To get to the new hay station, the sheep would have had to cross a marshy area so in the summer I had built them a path (see sheep happy with new path).  One morning, I went up to check on the sheep and they followed me back down (pictured right) and found the hay all laid out for them.

Some of them tucked right in while others still wandered off eating late autumn grass.  Over the following days, the visits to the hay feeders have increased and so we see them down at the feeders about twice a day now.

The other great benefit is that we can see them from the kitchen window.  We do like being able to see our sheep from the house.

 

 

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Yarr gets into a pickle

cruelty free sheepskin rugs

Every so often sheep get into pickles.  In fact, they’re probably more prone to pickles than other farm animals.

We didn’t know this until we became the proud owners of our first three sheep, Blumes, Thelma and Louise, and then the comments started; “where there’s livestock there’s deadstock”, or “did you know that sheep spend their entire lives looking for ways to die”.

“Oh” we thought disappointedly, “why are people not happy for us, proud new sheep parents?  Why the doom and gloom?  What can be so hard about keeping sheep?  Surely you just put them in a field and keep an eye on them from time to time?”  However, as with most (if not all!) our experiences in our smallholder life, we were soon to find out the hard way.

Sarka

Our first lesson came to us about 18 months in to keeping sheep.  By this time we had 12 woolly friends grazing away happily in our fields.  It was late summer and we were moving the flock into a different field.  As the sheep gambolled into the new paddock to investigate the fresh grass we noticed one of the flock, Sarka, was acting out of character.  She seemed spooked and jittery.  We watched her for a short while and decided we would need to pen her up and inspect her as something was clearly wrong.  So we penned her up and had a good look.  It didn’t take us long to discover to our horror and dismay, that under her tail were hundreds of wriggling and writhing white maggots.  “Flystrike” we both said in unison!  Closely followed by an expletive or two.  It was truly a horrific sight.  It was also something we’d been warned about and we had sprayed our flock earlier in the summer to prevent.  We rushed indoors to get the bottle of “Crovect” which kills maggots and thankfully Sarka was soon grazing away happily, cleaned up and at peace with the world again.

The following year we had three more incidents of flystrike and fortunately we caught each attack in time.  If left for too long the sheep will quickly “fulfil their life’s ambition”.  And “too long” can be only a matter of days – two or three after the maggots hatch and start burrowing into the flesh.  Even using the recommended sprays and checking sheep for the tell-tale signs (agitation, foot stamping etc) it is still possible for a blowfly to slip through the net and lay her eggs in the wool.

“Hmm” we thought, “perhaps these people have a point, sheep are not the easy maintenance creatures we thought they were.”  By now we saw ourselves saying goodbye to ever going on holiday again.

But fate was kind to us and dealt us a lucky hand.  Two years into owning sheep and having outgrown our Somerset smallholding we decided to up sticks and move to South West Scotland to a much bigger place.  This is where we live now, with many more woolly friends than we started out with.

The lucky hand of fate came in the form of hill breezes.  Blowfly like to lurk in warm and sheltered hedgerows.  They cannot abide a hill breeze, least of all a Scottish one which has a freshness about it, and they don’t care much for dry stone walls either which have no lurking potential, and we have plenty of drystone walls here, not a hedgerow in sight.  The result being that life here is blissful, chilly Scottish breezes are absolutely fine as far as I’m concerned and flystrike has happily become a thing of the past.  We don’t even spray our sheep now which is great because we don’t like chemicals.

But don’t rest on your laurels I hear you say and you would be right.  We were soon to be presented with another interesting learning experience.

Sky

One summer’s afternoon, during our first year on our Scottish smallholding I was doing the afternoon sheep check which involves counting them and scanning the flock for any unusual behaviour.  It also involves mooching around the flock giving them pats and head scratches.  So there I was happily wandering amongst the woollies when I noticed Sky looking rather strange.  She was lying down, but something seemed wrong.  On closer inspection I could see she was stuck.  “Oh no!” I said out loud, “she’s cast!”  I wondered how long she had been there as I turned her over and helped her to her feet.  Sky seemed none the worse for wear but her wool was quite flattened on the side she’d been lying on so I thought she must have been there a good while.  Sky was lucky I’d found her when I did as a cast sheep soon becomes prey for crows.  I didn’t like to think too much about that, but it was a sobering thought and my heart was heavy as I trudged back to the house to tell Adrian what had happened.

Luckily the incident remained a one off and we found no more sheep lying on their backs with their legs in the air, with the exception of once, close to lambing time, we found Star, heavily pregnant stuck on her side and unable to get up, but that was understandable as she was huge at the time.  Still, it was just as worrying as the first time round, and so we added “cast sheep” to our string of worry beads.

Two years on, and we had no more cast sheep.  “Yippee” we thought, but we knew by this time not to tempt fate and so kept our eyes peeled just in case.

And just as well as Adrian was soon to find out.

One spring morning earlier this year, Adrian was out fixing one of our numerous dry stone walls.  See “Stone Dykes” This particular wall was a boundary wall so it was important to get it fixed.  There was lots of to-ing and fro-ing on the quad bike with rocks and tools etc, and the way up to the wall was through the sheep.  On one of these journeys Adrian happened to spot Yarr, looking a bit funny.  Yarr is one of our boys, he’s a friendly chap always happy to come up for a chat and a pat.  Adrian instinctively knew there was something odd about him, he was lying on his side in amongst the other sheep, but seemed to be in an unnatural position.  He whizzed over, and was shocked to realise that Yarr was stuck, he was lying there helpless, his legs in the air like a beetle.  Adrian quickly turned him over and rubbed his legs to bring back his circulation.  Yarr seemed to be not quite himself for the rest of the day, however by the next day he was fine again.  “Phew” we thought what a stroke of luck that the wall had needed fixing and Adrian had found him when he did.  We check on the sheep three times a day but Adrian had found Yarr in between checks so poor Yarr would have been stuck a while longer if it hadn’t been for the work on the wall.

We thought no more about it, until two days later to be precise, Adrian was once more whizzing up on the quad to continue work on the wall when he spotted Yarr, on his back again! They say bad luck happens in threes so while helping Yarr back on his feet Adrian started wondering what else was going to go wrong.  Meanwhile I was wondering what was wrong with Yarr and why he kept ending up on his back.

Yarr with shaggy fleece

It occurred to us later that day over a cup of tea that the sheep had very shaggy fleeces, it was early May and they had a full year’s worth of wool on their backs.   They were due to be sheared later that month so we hoped that once relieved of their heavy fleeces Yarr, or indeed any other sheep wouldn’t end up on their backs for a wee while at least!

And this proved to be so, without their heavy fleeces, Yarr and the rest of the gang stayed out of pickles and we were relieved.

Until last weekend that is.  I was doing the evening check, the flock was grazing contentedly in the lower hay field and all was well with the world.  I counted 20 sheep, all were present and correct.  I then noticed Yarr looked a bit strange.  “Oh no” I thought, “not again!”  I ran over to him as he was very still, he looked like a ragdoll, like sheep who has given up.  On nearing him I was hugely relieved to find him alive, but yes, once again, cast.  I righted him and rubbed his flanks. He stood for a while and did a pee.  I wondered if he’d been holding it in as it seemed to go on for ever.  After a few minutes he shook himself and wandered off to graze with the others.

We hope Yarr has had his run of bad luck now.  He’s been found on his back three times, but on the other hand you could say Yarr was lucky, lucky to be found in time and not left to fulfil his life’s ambition.

 

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Vera “a touch of the itchies” update

Vera with cream on her ears

It’s been a few weeks since we wrote about Vera our ewe with “a touch of the itchies”.  See earlier story:  “Vera gets a touch of the itchies”

So, I thought I’d give you a wee progress update.

Happily I can report that since the vet’s visit in July, Vera’s been gradually getting better.  Although the vet hadn’t been 100% certain what had caused Vera’s “itchies”; in the days following his visit it was looking more and more like his suggestion of photosensitivity.

We scanned our pastures for any suspect plants.  The main culprits are umbelliferous plants and St John’s Wart.  I thought we had none of these where the sheep graze, as a horticulturalist I am always on the look out for “dodgy plants”.  But to my horror I found some Wood Angelica lurking in a dingy corner and my heart sank.

Several broken spades later I had removed about 25 of the villains.  Phew I thought, that should stop any further outbreaks.   I then whizzed off to the nearest chemist for some Sudocrem.  I had done some research and checked with the vet and Sudocrem would be the perfect ointment to aid Vera’s recovery once the affect of the steroids started to wear off.

And so began “The Cream Ritual”.  At first Vera was a bit suspicious of me brandishing my pot.  However, a few short days after being totally unimpressed with “the funny smelling white stuff”, she started to seek me out and wait patiently as I smoothed it on.  Pretty soon Vera made it plain she loved The Cream Ritual.  As soon as I took the lid off the pot, her neck grew several inches longer and she started to lick the air whilst nodding her head up and down, all tell-tale signs of a happy sheep.

As the days went by, Vera, on spotting me, came trotting up and leaned into me as I smoothed the cream on.  Her favourite spots were under her armpits.  She began to lift her back legs up to let me get right in.  The Cream Ritual became a really enjoyable part of both of our days.

Now, nearly 3 months later with the days shortening and no more scorchy days, Vera is almost completely better.  I’ve stopped applying Sudocrem much to Vera’s disappointment so I’ve been giving her plenty of head scratches and chest rubs to compensate.  I also check her skin on a daily basis just to make sure she’s OK.  Although it’s autumn there are still a few warm days and too much sunshine can cause a flare up.  So, it’s slow progress, but Vera’s getting there.

We just hope that she hasn’t become photosensitised indefinitely but only time will tell.  For the moment, she is OK and that is what matters.