A tough few months
Avian flu restrictions then sheep scab have hit Donald Macsween’s croft on the Isle of Lewis
As a keeper of sheep and poultry, it’s been a really tough few months. We all know about the avian flu issues that have been affecting poultry keepers throughout the UK, but my own local community has been hit by a sheep scab outbreak. Up until a couple of months ago, I had heard about scab but I had never seen it or realised how quickly it spread. Unfortunately, I am now an expert on it, as are most crofters around me!
I live in the north end of the Isle of Lewis and my district of Ness is actually 14 crofting townships separated from other districts by miles of open moor. The townships are very close together, so the scab spread quickly in our area, but looks like geography is restricting it to that.
Why is this a big deal, you may ask? Well, I didn’t realise how big an impact scab can have on the welfare of a sheep, and how quickly it can spread. Left untreated, sheep will lose condition, suffer and eventually die.
It appears to have been brought into the district sometime early this year and had spread before we had realised there was an issue. All our sheep locally are either dipped or treated with an injection/pouron combination in the autumn but very few have protection in the early months of the year. Combine this with the fact that sheep mingle with each other on common grazings and move between holdings and you get a fast-moving mite.
Sheep scab is a notifiable disease, so the local vet and Animal Health officer were informed as soon as crofters became aware of the issue. Myself and some other crofters treated our heavily pregnant
ewes in early April to try and tackle the issue, but matters came to a head in May when representatives from every township were called to a meeting with the local council’s Animal Health officer. We had an extremely productive meeting and set about to work together to try and eradicate the scab.
We all had to gather our animals from common grazings by May 6 and treat them all by May 13 , with no movements permitted for 16 days. All animals have now been injected, including newborn lambs, so we wait and see the results. One of the biggest issues is that the sheep scab mites can survive for 17 days on pieces of wool or fence posts, so there is always the danger that sheep can be re-infected if they were treated at different times.
I must admit that this has caused plenty of sleepless nights, at a time when we’re all lacking sleep due to lambing commitments anyway! It was the worst time of year for it to strike, not that there is ever a good time. We have to cross our fingers now and hope that the treatment has worked.
Lambing goes well
Hopefully, by the time you read this, I will have finished lambing. I am feeling quite drained now, after five weeks of early starts. I started off in early April and would carry out my first check of the ewes at around 5.30am, but with it getting light a lot earlier now, I am outside shortly after 4am. Hooded crows and black-backed gulls are the predators I have to look out for and pre-dawn checks are vital for beating them to any weak newborns.
Lambing has gone really well, though. I am at around 100 lambs and have only lost five. The main thing to remember is that where there is livestock, there is deadstock. My job is to minimise the deadstock. This is my best lambing to date and I put a lot of that down to delaying the majority of the ewes until after April 23. I missed the cold and wet spells, which are so disastrous for young lambs, and I hope that there will be no check in their growth later, as there should be grass growing by the time they start grazing. One of the major downsides of social media is that I’m very jealous of all the grass that’s growing down south!
It’s a bit of an experiment this year and I won’t know the results until I see how the younger lambs progress between now and autumn, but it’s looking pretty good so far. I have been particularly happy with my Zwartble cross lambs. They’ve grown really well and they’re easy on the eye too!
I do love lambing. I get excited at every single birth, but I really hope they finish soon!
A few days in the peats
May-July are busy months for many islanders. We’re just coming into the best months of the year, but we’re already starting to prepare for winter! One of the big jobs of the spring and summer months is cutting, lifting and taking home the peats. Peats are usually cut (by hand or lowimpact machine) in May, ‘lifted’ by hand to allow them to dry in June, and then taken home before the traditional heavy rains of July.
The islands have some of the highest levels of fuel poverty in the UK and peatcutting does help alleviate that a little. Given we have next to no native tree cover, there isn’t another fuel source that’s as plentiful and cheap. I’ll go into more detail about the peats the next time.
Donald has been very happy with the Zwartble cross lambs, like this one out of a Cheviot
Crofters in North Lewis are co-ordinating treatment of sheep and lambs to contain a sheep scab outbreak. They are subject to a 16 day restriction of movement.INSET: Donald, left, and his brother Innes in the peats in 2013
Donald has had his first ever Hebridean lambs. More on them next month.