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  • Writer's pictureBella Rawson

I Spent 3 Weeks Tackling 70kg Sheep

Well, hello there, all three family members that regularly read this blog! It's been a minute, hasn't it?

So this is my first post back in about 2 months, with the initial intent to come back to blog about the 3 weeks of Lent term I spent at university. Unfortunately, for reasons you all know, this didn't happen, and then I buggared off for 3 weeks of EMS lambing placements with no wifi. So, you can see how this has happened. I'm sure you've all been pleased not to be regailed (help, I have no idea how that's spelt) with my witty - not - commentary of my weeks at university, but unfortunately that's now over. Easter term, aka exam term aka hell on earth, is about to begin, and I thought I'd kick it off with a nice summary of how I spent most of my holiday knee deep in sheep shit (and enjoying every minute).

In true Bella fashion, I have absolutely no idea how to structure this blog post, so I figured I'd do a nice 'what I've learnt' breakdown interspersed with really cute pictures of baby lambs you're all gonna be jealous of. Without further ado, here's my three weeks in a cut off part of the country summarised into 5 easy bullet points...

  1. Diseases

In the words of my farmer 'a sheep's only objective in life is to die.' Whilst we may not be in complete agreement here, it does fantastically summarise the huge number of diseases I was introduced to and learned more about whilst on placement. It would seem, like any animal, sheep and lambs are suscpetible to just about anything, and there's often not a whole lot you can do other than give antibiotics, fluids, and hope.

Many of these are really fascinating and I wanted to share just a few that I encountered to spread the love around a bit (squeamish? I've been nice and not included photos, but everything is available online with just a Google search. Enjoy!)

a) Foot Rot

First up is footrot, an incredibly painful disease that can result in rapid weight loss, and in extreme cases, permanent damage to the horn.

Cause: Dichelobacter nodosus (bacteria)

Clinical Signs: sheep may walk on knees if both feet affected, swelling and moistening interdigital skin, foul smelling discharge (trust me, if you know, YOU KNOW), hoof capsule shedding, misshapen or overgrown hooves

Treatment: long acting antibiotic injection (we usually used alamycin), antibiotic spray (we chose terramycin spray)

b) CODD (super-duper foot rot)

Contagious Ovine Digital Dermatitis - it's like foot rot, on crack.

Cause: Spirochaete (bacteria)

Clinical signs: pain (sheep won't walk on foot), primary lesion in coronary band of the hoof (may bleed if bad), THE SMELL (good lord),

Treatment: parenateral long acting oxytetracycline and an NSAID (e.g. alamycin)

This stuff spreads like a gooden - any sheep should be quarantined, bedding should be changed and a disinfectant sprayed to reduce chances of transmission.

c) Twin Lamb Disease

Also known as Ovine pregnancy toxaemia, but we're not fancy on this blog.

Cause: older ewes carrying two or more lambs that can't ingest enough nutrients to maintain their metabolic activity.

Clinical Signs: doesn't come to feeding trough, isolated/depressed, blind, head pressing, head muscle tremors

Treatment: intravenous glucose injection, propylene glycol, glucocorticoid injection. Wool slip (loss of wool) is very common for recovered ewes.

d) Watery Mouth Disease

Again, a colloquial term for a collection of clinical signs, because it's easier than listing 10 different signs.

Cause: colonisation of E-coli in the small intestine

Clinical Signs: lethargy, don't suck, profuse salivation, bloating, retained meconium

Treatment: good luck with this one. Generally fluids and oral antibiotics can be successful in the early stage of the disease, but really you want the vet's help.

2. Husbandry

Sheep are surprisingly gentle, nervous creatures (this may not be a shock to you, but this was my first time hanging out with the gals and it was news to me) until you present them with sheep nuts or corner them. Then they're gonna be violent.

We fed the sheep twice a day, on cake (basically pellets with a lot of soya as the protein) and they had continual access to hay and water. Their bedding was made up thickly with straw and changed frequently, and they were kept in a large pen until they gave bith, at which point they were transferred to their own individual pen with ample room. The barn was large and airy but provided protection from the typical April showers and winds, and was (in my opinion) a lovely place to give birth.

Once the lambs are out there a few jobs to do: ensure that the membrane is not covering their mouth or nose so that they do not inhale water and drown, apply iodine liberally to the naval region to prevent infections, and allow mum and baby time to bond before penning them if at all possble. Several first time mothers were not pleased at all by the site of their new lambs and it took a while to get them to bond. In one instance, a mum 'slipped' (her lamb died) and so we tried, unsuccessfully, to foster another lamb onto her.

We attempted this the rather macabre way: skinning the dead lamb and putting it around the foster lamb to make it smell to the mother like it was the correct animal. Yes, I balked at this too, but it is apparently a perfectly normal practice and not at all an indication of a sheep's mental instability. Fascinating stuff.

Throughout my time I was also doing checks every two hours to ensure nothing lambed in distress and to top up hay and water accordingly. You would not BELIEVE the effort bottle feeding takes!

3. Actual lambing

For non-vets, let me give you a brief explanation of how a lamb is supposed to be born. The way we typically describe it is 'diving' out of the womb which makes it sound a whole lot more entertaining than it actually is. A lamb's front feet come out first (preferably together) on either side of its head, and it slides out thanks to uterine contractions and a lot of pushing coated in a membrane that is then licked off by mum. All fun and games for farmers, because if a first timer (a two tuff as my farmer affectionately referred to them as) is having difficulty or needs a bit of help, they can just grab the front feet and pull - easy as pie. (take a look at my sexy lambing outfit on the left).

Unfortunately, the little shits don't always like the 'easy' way.

You get all sorts. Coming out backwards, only one foot forward, neither foot forward, the wrong foot from a different lamb coming at the same time (yes, they have twins, and it's a pain) and god knows what else. Sometimes the vet's called to do a caesarian, they're that annoying.

What all this means for us brilliant vet students, is that we get to throw ourselves around pens chasing sheeps that way 20kg more than we do trying to rugby tackle them (they're heavily pregnant, mind you) to the ground to try to make sure they don't die giving birth. Amazing, isn't it? Even more amazing is the fact that I didn't break any bones whilst attempting all of this.

Anyway, the top two tips I got from lambing? 1) Lube. Lube. MORE LUBE. (sooooo many jokes here) and 2) Number your lambs. They WILL get lost. Also, I'm awful at docking - we use sterile rubber bands to dock tails and castrate males before they're 7 days old, and the tool we have to open these bands up was pure evil. Think I pinged more off the separater than I actually used.

4. Economics

God, I know, yuck - but fortunately, I'm not here to mansplain to you why we can't just print more money. The economics of sheep farming is actually incredibly interesting, and it's very important for farmers who make their living this way.

The price of lambs and ewes varies across the year, wit

Sometimes lambs and ewes are sold together - at the time of writing, a healthy ewe with two lambs is worth around £210 and are sold 'as seen' so the farmer can view them at market.

5. Drugs

Since we're not yet in clinical school, our exposure as vet students to drugs and their administration has so far been fairly limited. I actually think pharamacology is really interesting and is obviously such an incredibly important part of my job when I finally am allowed into practice. So, when I was regularly injecting and calculating dosage on placement, it's safe to say I was far more excited than you would expect.

For the most part, I was using 4 main drugs:

a) Metacam

This is one of the standard pain relief drugs administered to dogs and cats, and is an NSAID (non-steroidal anti inflammatory drug) whose active ingredient is Meloxicam, with sodium benzoate as a preservative. I suppose you could say a human equivalent is Nurofen if you need something to compare it too, although they have very different active ingredients (nurofen is ibuprofen).

Metacam is not actually licensed for sheep in the UK, but can be used off label as pain relief due to its similar use in other domestic animals. It's injected subcutaneously (under the skin).

It's not the cheapest thing in the world to buy though (although in fairness, no medication ever is. Now that I'm 19 the pharamcy starts charging me for scripts and I paid £9.35 the other day for a tube of cream! Welcome to adult life, love the NHS. Can you tell I can hold a grudge?)

b) PennStrep

This is an antibiotic, combining streptomycin with penicillin. It's used to control bacteria and is a three day course, injected intramuscularly.

c) Alamycin

A long acting broad spectrum antibiotic that only requires a single injection intramuscularly. We used this to treat for foot rot and CODD, as the active ingredient is oxytetracycline.

d) Terramycin (spray)

This is a broad spectrum antibiotic containing oxytetracycline as its active ingredient. Like alamycin, it works by preventing bacteria from making essential proteins they require for growth.


Well, I hope you all enjoyed that little round up! I had an incredible experience and although it was hard work, it was a great introduction to 4th year (we lamb the university flock in this year) and also to what my future placements will be like. Coming up later in the year I have cattle and horse placements booked, and I'm currently attempting to find a pig farm that will take me on (good luck to me).

I have a million more photos of what I got up to so if you need lamb pics to cheer you up, drop me an email and I'll be more than happy to provide!

Hope you all had a wonderful Easter and are looking forward to more adventures of a tired vet student this coming term!


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