Ugly ram, ugly lambs?

Last year we weren’t sure that our ram was up for the job, he may have done the job but no one would be looking forward a lamb-less spring if he wasn’t up to it. So to make sure this spring would be packed with cute and fluffy lambs, we got a loan of a ram.

It is not age that has us doubting our own ram, he is fairly young and has performed well since we got him. The problem was that the hot damp weather in September landed me with numerous cases of maggot infestations.

I will not go into the details of a maggot infestation, just saying the words paints a disgusting picture anyway. The ram came out fine, but there is always the worry that sickness could render them sterile and thus resulting in no-lambs-for-spring, which was not something I was willing to risk. So while our own ram convalesced we introduced a new one.

Now, I’m delighted to have the second ram and he has caused absolutely no problems. He’s quiet and shy, less of a bully than most of my sheep and gets along fine with our own ram. The fact that the two rams don’t fight speaks volumes about our own ram’s performance capacity; there simply doesn’t seem to be any competition for the new ram.

The new ram is a muscular Texel breed, which will give lambs of great market value. We are all for that, but, and I am well aware that this is not a relevant complaint, this new ram is butt-ugly. He has the Texel breed characteristics of course, but for some reason his snout is a lot shorter; this ram is literally the sheep variety of a bulldog and I did wonder if I would end up with a flock of ugly lambs. Is that even possible?

Which is the handsome ram?

My helpful neighbours, who always steer me away from my city-girl madness with logic and a firm hand, completely brushed aside my superficial worries pointing out the shanks of the new ram and the muscle he carries. Not that I seriously worried about ugly lambs, but I had never expected to see such an ugly sheep either.

Pretty is not really a main concern with any animal, the key is good genes and for me also good temperamennt. I simply would not be skilled enough to deal with an aggressive animal, I will forgive the smallish head-butts my ewe, “The Angry One”, gives me when she has a lamb, but that is as far as it goes.

There are only two ewes left to lamb, and with several pairs of twins, I have a wide selection of lambs on the farm. I can’t fully verify which ram is the father, I’m sure it will show eventually, regardless of that, I can with relief say that the lambs are beautiful.

Normal looking ewe and the Texel ram.

The lambing season is here

The blog fell on the wayside, not only because we had a busy year with plenty of guests at Casa Ceoil, but simply because it slipped down the very long long long list of to-dos that we have. New projects, old projects, family commitments, and just life. But we are giving it another breath of life, and no time is better than when the first lambs are born.

So at the first most intense week of the year, I decided to get back to the blog. Intense as the lambing has started and this week, I have had two sets of twins and a single. Unlike other years, not only do I have a better eye for when a ewe is due, but I have lovely stalls organised for them. I keep them out as much as possible, but under a watchful eye as a gauge their due time by checking udders and a few more signs.

One set of twins were born in our top field, a favourite place for the lambing ewes. As my gear demands more hands than I have, I decided to facilitate the transport of the lambs by simply stuffing them in a bucket. Problem solving through a spur of the moment inspiration is my bread and butter on this farm. When moving my lambs I now always carry:

She doesn’t look it, but this one is a fairly fierce and protective ewe. Her name, simply…The angry one.
  1. Bucket of feed to entice the ewe to move away from the birthplace (often a difficult enough task).
  2. Large lamb bucket (in case of twins), with straw.
  3. Straw for the bucket and when I pick up the lambs (to avoid transferring much of my own smell and possibly cause the ewe to reject the lambs).

This prep makes the process a lot simpler. Not only can the ewe follow the lamb or lambs in the bucket easily, we can also move quick enough. One of my ewes bucks me every time I come close to her lamb, a good mother but makes it hard to handle the lambs. As this was the first lamb and it was also pre-lamb bucket inspiration, I had to walk backwards most of the field keeping the lamb between us, all to avoid getting headbutted by the annoyed ewe.

Billy the visiting billy goat

I’m also waiting for my pygmy goats to deliver, which I think will be early to mid-February. We had a loan of a very friendly puck from a very friendly couple in west Clare. While the puck was no trouble, I was more than happy to not own one, I have never come across such a strong-smelling animal. “Don’t pet him” was my neighbours’ advice, but it didn’t help, his pheromones were so strong it was enough to stand beside him and his smell stuck to you; a very strong smell of overly ripe goats’ cheese.

To our dismay the smell stuck even after washing your hands with dishwasher liquid and heavy scrubbing, never mind the clothes. Some research, after spending a day or so of constantly smelling goat cheese (and not the good kind!), I found the solution; wash your hands with a bit of toothpaste or goat’s milk soap.

Last year saw plenty of changes, while only one of our four cows had a calf, we discovered that this cow in particular (Oprah) is a high yield milker and a good foster mother. Oprah reared an additional two calves along with her own, plus is currently with two more, but she will, of course, get a break.

The land of rainbows.

Re-organising a bit, I decided to swap two cows for four calves. While it is periodically labour intense, we will have calmer periods as well. Another plus is that all the calves are heifers, so no crazy young bullocks for me. If you don’t know my history with the male side of cattle, have a read of my blog “Frenemies on the Farm” and you’ll understand.

Our poultry population has dwindled as well, thanks to Mr Fox. The only good thing the fox did, was to target the hen that was pecking the eggs and thereby saving me the hassle of trying to figure out which of my identical looking hens was the culprit. I never got to try the “fake egg” trick on them, but I have them saved in case there is another instance of egg pecking. Supposedly putting fake eggs where they lay will teach them a lesson.

There may be plenty to do, but the rewards are immense and few things are as satisfying as seeing the delivery of healthy animals. It startles me at times, that I am living this very down to earth and very real type of life, not something I expected growing up in the city. I would not change it for the world.

Overcoming my fear of chickens

Chicken Fear 18 (Apr 2018)

I resisted for a long time, refusing to be the one to buy chickens. I had made myself clear, that while I was not against chicken per se, they did freak me out and I did not feel comfortable around them, at all.

“A hen would never hurt you”, was a common response to my chicken fear. Then a pensive pause and a story of that one hen that was a bit off kilter. There is always that story and it never assuaged my fear, rather reinforced the fact that some chickens are plain crazy and not just cockerels.

IMG_5816

Early days in front of the coop designed and built by Kevin and our girls.

My fear is a childhood fear. I wasn’t always afraid of chickens, but after being chased by my two of my grandmother’s chickens and my grandfather’s fearsome cockerel I put my foot down. I tried facing my fears as a child and spent a couple of months working in a chicken farm, but it didn’t do a thing for me.

There is something about their beady eyes, combined with sharp looking beaks and the way they look at you sideways with one eye. It gives them a slightly crazy look and you never know what they’ll pick at next.

I lost the battle and finally bought six young hens that need to be fattened up a bit before the eggs start coming. The good news is that I can finally say I have almost fully overcome my fear, not only can I touch them and pick them up, but I actually enjoy feeding and minding them. They know me by now and I can call them they come running from everywhere to check for whatever treats I have brought them.

My fearlessness has come as far as me teaching them to climb up the steps to the hen house. It is hard to imagine a sillier situation, me catching a chicken in the dusk, setting her at the steps and both pushing and encouraging her up the steps. Of the six only one was a bit slow on the pickup and thankfully I had to do the exercise just once; they now go into their coop by themselves every evening and we just make sure to close the door after them for safety.

IMG_6175

The fearsome creatures show no fear of Roisin.

With another type of pride, I can also tell you that our dog has quickly learned that the chickens are not prey. They easily walk around Bella without her paying them too much attention. Bella’s love for chasing birds and in particularly magpies had me worried, she never really fully eased up around the ducks and could not be trusted around them on her own. The chickens seem to be a different thing, she does herd them at times, barks when they spread out too much for her liking, but never gets any nearer than three feet.

The only ones that have had to be taught matters around the chickens are the cats and it is lucky that they are not full-blown hunters yet. At least one of them has understood that the chickens are out of bounds and we’ll do some work on the other one still.

The downside of fowl on the farm has been the fox attacks. I lost my laying ducks last Christmas, just as they were about to start laying seriously. I have now also lost three chickens and one left on the edge; this one has been amazing and has fully recovered. She still has bare areas on her back stained with the blue antiseptic liquid, but after being cooped up a week in a cat box she was more than ready to get outside and properly stretch her legs. I’m thinking of calling her Blue, although when she gets her new feathers I don’t know if I’ll be able to distinguish her from the rest.

IMG_6637

The spunky hen Blue, showing little effects of the fox attack last month.

I immediately got another three chickens and I’m being stricter with the closing in at night, also checking the doors which gave the fox easy access to the coop.

You want to have your fowl as free as possible, but at the same time a bit of incarceration keeps them safer. It’s a hard balance. I might just have to get an alpaca, I’ve heard that they are very protective, even of chickens. Wonder what Kevin might say about that, considering he was a bit lukewarm of the purchase of pygmy goats.

A most interesting thing is that we have a hen that regularly lays eggs with two yolks, imagine my surprise the first time I cracked an egg into my frying pan and this happens regularly. I haven’t figured out which one yet, but she is definitely a keeper; this is after all a house of twins.

 

Lambing crash course

The lambing season is over, the last ewe rounded up a shaky and eventful season with an unsupervised easy birth of twin lambs. The ewe was brought into the shed during the heavy snowfall a few weeks back and didn’t seem to be in a hurry and I almost started doubting myself and wondering if she was ever going to lamb.

This year we’ve had three twin births all in all, two went without a bother and one required very hands on intervention. On the day we noticed that one of the ewes was restless, bleating repeatedly, separating herself from the flock, alternating between laying down and squatting.

IMG_6208

Lambing was rounded up with an easy birth of twins.

After a couple of hours, with the help of a good neighbour, we got the sheep into the shed. It was time check her and possibly pull out the lamb. The hours of waiting did not go to waste, I devoured articles on the internet reading up on lambing, birth positions, pulling lambs, sheep anatomy, birth hygiene and so forth.

When it was time to check on the lamb, I had my nails trimmed, arms washed and disinfected, latex gloves on and plenty of lubricant just in case. My experienced neighbour had the sheep pinned in the pen and asked me if I wanted to check on the lamb or if he would, and there was no doubt of my response

“Of course I’ll do it”, I said and kneeled at the back of the ewe and put my hand in to check on the lamb.
“Make sure that if you pull two legs it is the legs of the same lamb and not a leg of two separate lambs,”, says my neighbour and I feel myself blanching. How in the world would I be able to figure that one out?

It resulted in being a very unimportant point, the lamb had his head down and was trying to come out neck first. I pushed the lamb back in, pushed up his snout, got hold of his legs and started pulling. I don’t know why we think we need to pull straight out, with my neighbour’s guidance I learned that I needed to pull down towards the legs.

IMG_5718

The ewe we lost and her orphan lamb.

My mind was incredibly focused during the birthing, I felt no worry or stress, instead images of lamb birth positions and anatomy passed through my head as I tried to visualise the whole process. I also kept thinking of my own experience giving birth naturally to my twins and it made me wince every time I lost hold of the little hooves and had to dig for them again.

The lamb came out, warm from the womb, but we quickly saw it wasn’t breathing. We tried rubbing it with a clean towel and clearing his airways, I even swung it by the legs in a half circle to make sure all the mucus was out. It was of no use; the lamb was dead.

At the time we had an orphan lamb (a story for another day), my neighbour asked me to rub the dead lamb onto the orphan, to see if the ewe would take it on. It was no good and the ewe kept pushing away the orphan. As we were contemplating a second, quite gruesome solution where you skin the dead lamb and cover the orphan with the skin to fool the mother, we realised something.

In the middle of this ER scene from revival tactics to possible organ transplant, we realised we should first check if the ewe had more lambs coming. The orphan was put back in his pen and I prepared for another vet experience.

On with new gloves and as I examined the ewe I felt two little hooves pointing towards the exit. I grabbed hold of them and pulled a beautiful live lamb out. To be sure to be sure, I checked for a third one but none was present.

I fretted for days that my hygiene precautions might not have been up to scratch or that my lack of experience would result in the ewe would getting an infection or some other horrific internal injury.

We may have lost a lamb, but I am delighted to report that the mother and her second lamb are strong and healthy.

This is the first time I had to pull lambs in such a fashion, and as I have been saying, the more I know the more complicated the farming seems to get.

Making use of all my wool

Spinning and felting Oct 17

With the help of a friend of mine I have taken up a new hobby, spinning and felting. Thanks to the loan of a pair of hand carders and the spindles I bought years ago, I am now producing the beginning of uneven and bumpy yarn. My kids enjoy it as well and together we are slowly, very slowly, using up one of the sheep fleeces we have.

As I explained in a previous blog (see post Shedding the winter coats) sheep fleeces are considered a waste product and are pretty much useless. Unless you have some fancy and exclusive mohair sheep and particularly if your sheep are intended for meat or dairy, the price you get for the fleece will only about cover the cost of the shearing.

IMG_7369

A real spindle for my yarn. Great fun!

I have recently been baffled by some interesting opinions on sheep shearing online, where some animal rights activists have classified it as animal abuse. I guess you can only have this opinion if you haven’t seen the relief on the sheep after shearing on a hot day (Shedding the winter coats), or if you’ve had to deal with flystrike and maggots in the fleece after hot and humid weather (don’t miss post Disgusting sheep chores). A good shearer is quick, efficient and careful, the fellow we use is all that and taciturn to boot, you won’t even get a grunt out of him and the sheep are as meek as…well, sheep. Sheep are fully domesticated animals, which really just means that they cannot live in the wild without the help of humans. There are of course breeds that are better at this, but it does not apply to most of the breeds you see in the European countryside.

While I meant to get the fleeces to the mill for a few euros each, I kept forgetting. Instead I have sacks of fleeces waiting to be used and no time better to start at the “Spinning Day” in Ennis. Attended by a whole group of local spinners and a friend of mine who had promised to give me the first rudimental skills, so my girls and I got two of what I hoped where my best fleeces and got a lesson with both the spindle and the spinning wheel.

According to the women spinning there, the fleeces were not bad at all, they were of fairly long and soft fibers. I had rinsed one of the fleeces a couple of times and laid it out to dry in my polytunnel, the other I brought with me in its raw state. I did give one away to another local spinner, she was delighted with the gift.

Photo 13-11-2017, 18 30 40

A drop spindle, easy to bring anywhere.

The spinning is very relaxing, there is something almost hypnotic about it and it can be hard to stop. My kids enjoy it as well, and since I’m not worrying about creating the perfect yarn they are welcome to spin at any time, of course it usually turns out they want to spin when they see me doing it, particularly after I have prepared a good few skeins (carded pieces of wool). We’ve decided that the yarn will be used for a Christmas knitting project, so I better get more wool spun.

The other thing I tried my hand at is needle felting. Being a right Pinterest addict and a bit of imagination, I was able to figure out the basics of this craft, which is another addictive and hypnotising pastime. It is exactly what it sounds like, you literally shape wool by compressing it into shapes with a needle, which you punch through the wool endlessly. You can add colours and shades, to create whatever you like. Have a quick look at Pinterest and you will be amazed at the creations. I will for now show of my first project, a tiny unicorn made with my own sheep’s wool with fancy coloured mohair wool added to it, just for the effect.

Photo 21-11-2017, 14 30 22

My first attempt at needle felting. A bit lumpy but not too bad, if I can say so myself.

I love learning new skills and there crafting something with your hands is incredible relaxing and therapeutically, but there is also something sad about old-time and traditional crafts. There is one thing all the spinners at the event were in agreement on, spinning doesn’t pay. Many of them used their beautiful wool for different projects, whether this be hand knitted jumpers, scarves or other clothing items. These are items that have a sentimental and artistic value, but few people could imagine paying for the time spent on such a project. That is true for most crafts, unfortunately.

Regardless of the economical imbalance of crafting, there are few things that give such gratification as creating something from scratch. For me it goes even one step further, it is to be able to appreciate all aspects of my animals and farming. I have reared and cared for these sheep, they have provided meat for me and now I can say that I have not wasted any part of them.

IMG_6432

Me and my sheep bestie, simply called “The kind one”. Its time to give her a proper name.