Lambing 2017


It’s been a little while since I’ve had the chance to write – the weeks seem to fly by with the busiest months on the smallholding being March and April. The pregnant ewes and goats needing close supervision and the garden needing preparation for the coming season, before I know it we are into June!


We’ve been very lucky this winter – it’s been relatively dry and the ewes have continued to graze out on the common land – 30 acres of wet meadowlands that provide an important habitat to numerous species of birds and plant life becoming increasingly scarce in the UK. The ewes went into the winter in good condition and held it through the winter with nothing in the way of supplementary feeding. I had a very bad lambing season last year and put it largely down to getting the feeding regime wrong, with the ewes being given too much additional food too early. This year they just had hay and a high protein bucket to help themselves to what they needed. Four weeks before lambing I started giving them ewe nuts, more to get them used to being around me again and I could get a good look to see if anyone was ‘bagging up’ (milk coming in ready for birth). Portland sheep very rarely have twins, and with just a handful to lamb I don’t get them scanned, and as a primitively breed they thrive on rough grazing with little additional concentrate feed.

2017-04-04 13.33.54

We lamb outside, which I think is a lot less stressful for the ewes, and have a small shed with three lambing pens for any problems. I definitely have a hands off approach but keep a close eye. With just a few sheep I can usually tell when someone is thinking about lambing before the ewe knows, and this gives an insight to just how long it can take for a natural, problem free delivery – patience is key. Over the last few years I have waded in before time unnecessarily, often with poor consequences.


This year all eight ewes lambed with little interference from me. A couple required a little assistance with some bigger tup lambs, but otherwise without bother. The weather was good, and they all lambed in the day over a two week period – this makes what can be an extremely stressful time, actually quite enjoyable! Navals are sprayed with Bactakil to prevent any infection after the mother has licked them dry, and I leave her to bond for a few hours and for the lamb to get to its feet and get that all important colostrum. They are then moved onto the garden patch where they are out of harms way and on fresh grass.


One reoccurring problem that I have still yet to solve is that of the appearance of Joint Ill in the lambs from about 10 days of age. This is a bacterial infection that causes lameness and swelling of the joints that can eventually lead to fatalities. It is generally considered more prevalent in dirty, indoor lambing sheds, and where the navels are not treated soon enough, or colostrum not taken within an hour of birth. It can be resolved using a single shot of antibiotics if caught early enough, and I’ve found this to be extremely effective – however I am not at all happy to be using antibiotics a routine treatment and need to find the root cause of the problem. I suspect the bacteria responsible are found in the soil so can’t be eliminated, so next year I am going to use a much stronger iodine solution for treating their navals and try and do it sooner to see if that helps.


All eight lambs (6 tubs and 2 ewes) are now strong and healthy and out with the  ewes on the common land until the seasons move on and the next round of shepherding – they will be brought in for vaccinations, tagging, worming and fly prevention treatments. But more in that in a future post!


Chicken lockdown.

So, for the past few weeks we’ve been in lockdown, with the poultry not allowed out to free range due to the risk of bird flu, H5N8. As for most backyard poultry keepers this has been a bit of a logistical  nightmare, and the DEFRA guidelines have not been particularly clear. This (supposedly) highly pathogenic strain is spread by infected wild birds, and can be spread to domestic poultry by contact with contaminated food, water or droppings. We are advised to keep poultry housed, but where this was not possible under a covered run that should not be accessed by wild birds. All feed and water is to be kept in the house.


The ducks have have not been too problematic, with only three of them we have shut them in the propagation greenhouse near the house. They are safe from predators and have a nice fresh bucket of water everyday to keep themselves clean and I top up the bark chippings on the floor weekly to keep it dry and comfortable for them.

The trio of Dutch bantams are in an ark which I have covered with feed sacks to keep the wild birds out with the end netted for ventilation. Feed and water in the house. Sorted.

My biggest dilemma was the main laying flock. We’ve got about a dozen laying hens that we keep in a large fenced pen. It is far too big to net over the top. With the water and feed placed in the house itself the hens were just not utilising it. Food wasn’t being eaten, and more worryingly they were not touching their water. Their house itself is too small to have birds shut in for any length of time. Like many smallholders we have got a variety of outbuildings and sheds, they are, however, filled with junk all in use.


I decided to move the hay from its designated shed to an unused greenhouse further away on the veg plot. This involved first clearing the greenhouse of weeds, empty pots and other veg plot paraphernalia and getting some pallets down to make sure the bales weren’t in contact with the damp ground and spoil. With the hay shed cleared, I used a pallet on edge as a perch and to divide the area in two, added a low shelf for the chooks to nest under, and a big, shallow bucket of sand for scratching and dust bathing. There is a stable door on the front, so I made a wire screen to go on the top half to improve ventilation and let in some much needed daylight.


So far the hens have been reasonably happy with this set up. I make sure they get a cabbage or apple to peck at everyday, and a scattering of corn on the ground. We’ve had a few eggs, but will all be very relieved when this period of confinement is over, and in the meantime I’m going to make the most of it and have a sort out in their existing house and run. I’d love to hear from you if you have any other tips to keeping your birds entertained while confined!


You can find out what Defra suggests for poultry keepers here