This time of year is absolutely critical for sheep farmers as most are in the midst of lambing or have just come to the end of their lambing period and have young lambs out in the field.
Although I only have a small number of sheep, our animals are in a particularly exposed position and I can vouch for how hard the last few days have been.
We started lambing about 10 days ago. We tend to watch the sheep very closely, lamb them outside, then move them into indoor lambing pens as soon as they have lambed. This reduces the risk of infection when lambs are born inside. With the severe weather forecast at the end of last week, we changed our plans and got all of the sheep that were still due to lamb indoors.
We usually try to get lambs outside after a few days but obviously with the forecast of snow, we kept them all in. This has avoided any losses due to hypothermia but means that our buildings are pretty crowded.
Last year’s lambs are in a field about a mile from our house and on Saturday morning, I was conscious of the need to check them. The snow drifts were 5 to 6 feet deep by then and getting out in a vehicle was just impossible so I set off on foot with a rucksack full of concentrates. After 2 hours of walking and crawling over drifts I finally made it to the field in an absolute blizzard. The drifts were over the top of the gateway. A very kindly neighbouring farmer leant me a bale of hay which I pushed over the top of the drifts and in to the grateful sheep. Although very iced up, they gratefully tucked into the concentrates and hay and looked much brighter when I left for a return 2 hour battle against the elements to get home.
Return trips on Sunday and Monday reassured me that, although pretty miserable, their thick winter fleeces were doing their job. Although lambs are very fragile, adult sheep are incredibly hardy.
As I write this on Tuesday lunchtime, we are still completely cut off with 10 to 12 ft high drifts and the council having made no attempt to clear our road. A couple of farmers are making valiant attempts to dig through the drifts. All our Sheep are safe and well either inside or outside with full stomachs.
My small numbers of sheep have proved very difficult to deal with in the last few days and we must feel for those farmers who have been overwhelmed with the battle against the elements and have lost livestock in the last few days.
If the weather finally improves and we can ever venture into the garden again, please support your local British sheep farmer by putting locally sourced lamb on your barbeque and make all his struggles over the last week worthwhile.
Every year, at Donaldson’s Vets, we see dozens of dogs with sore feet during periods of cold weather.
Dogs’ feet are incredibly well adapted to covering all sorts of terrain – with a thick horny pad to give protection over rough surfaces and claws which act like a set of crampons to grip on slippery surfaces. The hair that sits between the pads will give thermal insulation to the more sensitive skin.
But even dogs’ feet can become chapped and sensitised by extreme cold. The snow can form solid lumps of ice in the hair between the pads and can continue to chill the skin after the walk has ended if not dealt with properly.
In extreme cold, the body restricts blood flow to the peripheral areas to help to maintain the core body temperature. This useful short term mechanism can starve the periphery of oxygen and actually start to damage the feet if the temperature does not increase quickly. Effectively, your dog can get frostbite.
The cracked, inflamed skin between the pads is made much worse by the presence of rock salt which is highly irritant. The combination of cracked skin, salt irritation and then self trauma as your dog attempts to clean the area, can lead to painful paws and is a common cause of lameness at this time of the year.
What to do
If it is particularly cold and frosty or if there is snow on the ground, try to limit your dog’s exposure to the snow and ice. If you have been anywhere that rocksalt has been spread, bathe the feet thoroughly in some clean warm water. Check between the pads for any accumulation of ice or grit and dab the feet dry with a soft towel. Always avoid scrubbing the feet when drying them as this can make them more inflamed.
With a little extra care, both you and your dog can enjoy wonderful winter walks!