Monday, 31 August 2009

Observations: Sheep Move from Amphitheatre to Quail Paddock

On 27th August we decided it was time for the sheep to start moving into the Quail Paddock. There was still ample feed available but they’d been there since 19th August and we also felt it was time to give the plants recovery time prior to hot weather setting in. We opened the double gates in the south-east corner and left them to make their own way through. 6 mm of rain fell in the 24 hours to 9.00 am on 29th August. By mid afternoon on 29th August the mob had still not moved through the gates so we decided it was time to give them a helping hand. This blog post recounts various observations connected with and subsequent to the move.

Our approach in moving the mob (comprising ewes and lambs) was to take things slow and steady to ensure we did not place undue stress on any of the animals or leave lambs behind. For most of the way the ewes that had lambs stayed closely with their lambs. Smaller and weaker lambs took quite a while as they do like to sleep quite a bit. The older and stronger lambs (the first of the lambs were born on 12th August) seemed to have formed social groups of 10 to 20 and played together.

We’d noticed previously from a distance that one of the lambs seemed inordinately white. On close inspection we found that its coat was more hair than wool, presumably some type of reversion to the characteristics of a (possibly distant) ancestor. Another lamb has a black round marking of approximately 90 mm diameter on its back in between its shoulders.

In moving the mob we got to a point where a reasonable proportion of the ewes had entered the Quail Paddock and were spreading out, feeding enthusiastically on the fresh herbage mass in the paddock. Many had left their lambs behind, for the time being at least, and some of the lambs were running to and from the mineral trough located in the Amphitheatre Paddock - about 80 metres to the west of the gate we were trying to get them through. It was not clear whether they were going to the trough for minerals or for a drink of the water than had accumulated in the trough during the previous day’s rainfall. There were 4 ewes with very small lambs that were determined not to move with the mob, so a decision was taken to leave them and focus on getting all of the rest of the mob through the gate. The latter was due in no small part to the large number of ewes that had moved into the Quail Paddock and the large number of lambs that remained.

The rest of the move proved quite challenging due to several factors:
• Lambs had mobbed-up even more and were running enthusiastically in many directions
• Some of the lambs that had gone through the gate were running along on the other side of the fence – influencing those that had yet to go through the gate
• Some lambs were jumping through the hinge-joint fence – both ways
• Many continued to go back to the minerals troughs
• We suspect that some were trying to get back to the point were they had last seen their mothers, not understanding that those mothers were now in the Quail Paddock
• Our own lack of experience in herding lambs – they do not yet have behaviours as predictable as their mothers either.

It was dark by the time we had all of them (except the 4 ewes with lambs mentioned previously) through the gate. Chaos reigned supreme, with ewes looking for lambs and lambs looking for their mothers; all making plenty of noise. To assist in the reunion process we did go around all of the sheep and herd them back toward the gate where most of the lambs had congregated. Some of the lambs had lay down and gone to sleep, presumably to conserve energy. As there was nothing else we could do we returned home, and had a somewhat restless night wondering what the scene would be like in the morning.

On the morning of 30th August Phillip returned initially to the Amphitheatre Paddock and moved the 4 ewes with lambs individually into the Quail Paddock to rejoin the main mob. Fortunately none of these 4 ewes had lost any lambs that were with them the previous evening. During this process it became clear that one of the lambs Phillip had thought was a twin proved not to be – with the ewe pushing it away consistently, and tending to its own lamb. The rejected lamb continued to persistently try and drink from that ewe.

Whilst coming up over a rise in the Amphitheatre Paddock at one point Phillip disturbed a very large young Wedge-tailed Eagle. It was feeding on a recently dead or killed lamb carcass. The accompanying photograph shows the state of the carcass remains. There are many who are of the view that Wedge-tailed Eagles are aggressive takers of new lambs. We have no direct experience in this regard and at this point have chosen to think that they would focus on weaker animals that may not survive in any case. Interestingly, a Wikipedia article on Wedge tail Eagles states: “Their keen eyesight extends into the infrared and ultraviolet bands. This helps them spot prey and allows them to see rising thermals, which they can use to gain altitude while expending little energy.”
On approaching the main mob in the Quail Paddock it appeared that overnight all lambs had reunited with their mothers, and that there were no dead lambs or lambs on their own. Quite an achievement!

One ewe was dead, located against the northern fence near the entrance to the Spring Paddock but along the fence adjacent to the Arch Paddock. There was a big strong lamb attempting to suckle from it which ran away as the ewe was approached. On inspection of the ewe the following was evident:
• Proximity to (against it) the fence suggested that it may have been trying to get as far from the mob (separate due to illness) as possible or been trying to get into the Arch Paddock for something it wanted. NB: The plant species in the Quail Paddock are not that flash, being predominantly ‘weed’ species: Patterson’s Curse and Barley Grass. The Arch Paddock contains mainly native grasses and areas of exposed scorched earth (which may contain minerals). The Amphitheatre Paddock was far more diverse in species mix, being native grasses and many shrub and trees as well.
• It had been frothing at the mouth
• Skin colour was ‘poisonous looking’ (if there is such a thing), being pale, mauve, reddish through purple.
• The animal had been kicking its legs quite a bit whilst on its side prior to death
• The eye at the uppermost side of the head was clear and at that point had not been attacked by Ravens.
• Given that the animal had only come into the paddock the night before it looked as though it had died quite quickly.

The symptoms surrounding the death of the above sheep were materially different from the others that we’d lost since acquisition and were more alarming as it seemed the ailment might be evident in many others in the mob. Phillip contacted a neighbour and called around to borrow his two sheep disease publications: ‘Sheep Diseases’ by A Brightling published in 1988 and “Diseases of Livestock’ by T G Hungerford published in 1967. During discussions with this neighbour the following came to light:
• The neighbour Phillip saw and another adjacent one have both experienced unusually high ewe losses during this year’s lambing season.
• The main cause is thought to be magnesium deficiency in the pasture
• Older ewes are more susceptible to death when stressed than maiden ewes when lambing and raising lambs due to larger body weight, greater propensity for multiple births, and higher milk volume production – all placing more strain on the ewes when feed needs are not adequately met.
• Younger / maiden ewes, whilst arguably more susceptible to actually lambing difficulties, have more single lambs and have poorer mothering skills and instincts; meaning that they more readily abandon the lamb in the interest of self-preservation when under stress.

Jan studied the Sheep Diseases text with a particular emphasis on low magnesium caused ailments. This research suggested that the ewe probably died from Grass Tetany. The key symptoms and features connected with Grass Tetany are:
• Rapidly growing forage – we’d had 6 mm of rain which would have had a flushing impact on the green foliage in the Quail Paddock
• Animal under stress – the ewe was most likely separated from its lamb during the move and may have had extreme difficulty locating it
• Quick death
• Kicking legs
• Frothing at the mouth.

Fortunately the lick we have out for the ewes presently is designed to address magnesium and calcium deficiencies. A problem with licks, though, is that not all of the animals seek out and consume them.

Phillip is presently about half way through reading the book by Pat Coleby titled Natural Farming: A Practical Guide. This has made it very clear to us that the soils on our place on the arable paddocks (including the Quail Paddock) are really quite sick, evidenced by the high incidence of weed species, with deficiencies of both magnesium and calcium. All of the above suggests that we have a HUGE way to go in our endeavours to regenerate a large percentage of the soils on Ochre Arch.

The good news is that we think most of our ewes have in fact lambed, and the lambs do look healthy. Here is a photograph of just a few of the lambs.
Despite the fact that the lambs look good, we have decided to further increase the monitoring frequency of our mob of sheep.

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