Lambing time. Again.

Malachy successfully battles mastitis and reveals some of the other challenges lambing brings

We are now just over halfway through our lambing. Fourteen of the 26 ewes have done their job so far, giving us 25 lambs. The weather has, for the most part, been mild and dry; there have been no serious birthing difficulties or further mortalities, and, apart from a slight lack of sleep, things are generally going well.

The week has not been without its problems though.

One of our ewes, shortly after lambing, appeared to have a swollen udder. Upon checking, we found the milk was a light pink colour – like strawberry milkshake. This meant mastitis.

The ewe was taken in to the byre and given a dose of penicillin. The lambs too were given injections, in case they picked up the bacteria from drinking the milk. The next few days were spent milking the infected side empty, four or five times a day, to try and drain the infection and to make sure the lambs were drinking as little of it as possible. If we didn’t solve the problem quickly, we would have had to take one of the lambs away.

Gradually, after four days of sore fingers and aching knees (milking a sheep is not the most comfortable of activities) the milk became paler and, eventually, white again. One further shot of penicillin, and mother and lambs were back out in the field. We were lucky. Sometimes mastitis can be very serious, and, if it’s not caught early enough, the udder can be permanently damaged.

Our other problem has been a question of numbers.

Most sheep have twins, and some have singles. Either is fine. Sometimes however, a mother can have three, even four lambs. Last Monday night we had triplets.

From a financial perspective, the more lambs the better. But from a welfare perspective, it’s not quite so simple.

Ewes have only two working teats, so do not have enough milk to feed three lambs. They manage fine while they are small, but as the lambs get bigger it becomes a strain on her and can damage her teats. It is possible to keep all three lambs with their mother, and to supplement the feeding of one or all of them, to take the pressure off a bit. But this is not always a good solution.

The best way to guarantee the health of the mother and all three lambs is to take one of them away from her and bottle feed it. It then becomes a “caddy” lamb: tame, motherless and reliant on you for its food.

While a cute pet lamb may sound like a wonderful idea, it really isn’t. Working with animals requires a certain lack of sentimentality, particularly when it comes to life and death matters, but it doesn’t mean a lack of empathy. Taking a lamb away from its mother at just four days old is not an easy thing to do. Seeing her sitting alone in the byre in a little box of straw, looking utterly miserable and utterly dejected, is really not very pleasant. She spent the first day or so calling to her mother outside, but eventually gave up.

She is now back outside again, having got used to feeding from the bottle. She also tries feeding from every sheep in the field, and each in turn pushes her away. After only two days apart, her real mother rejects her now also. Watching her desperately trying to be mothered by somebody, anybody, makes me feel like a complete bastard. But at least she’s alive.

I won’t write about sheep again next week, I promise.