Whatever the cause of the climate change we are witnessing it is very clear that over the last decade our seasons have altered. One clear aspect is that, here on the west, it is generally wetter and possibility warmer (though there seems also to be more variability in temperature than before). While this may not be to the benefit of farmers and growers, without altering crops and patterns of management, it is not a disadvantage to everyone. This weather favours some of the insect life which has been much more prolific.
As it is warmer the winters are not as cold, and it seems not cold enough, to kill off the flies and larva as usual. Over the past years we have seen flies in the air right through the winter period and it has felt very strange in December or January to see them still flying about. It was for this reason that we have been much more concerned about fly-strike and our sheep and the reason I was collecting everyone yesterday for their medication. The season where one could expect fly-strike or head fly is now much longer than before.
This is a considerable source of worry. Fly strike, or maggots, is an awful thing to happen to sheep. They are literally eaten alive by maggots. The common risk factors are warm humid weather which favours the flies and the sheep having some scouring (diarrhoea) often associated with the spring grass. The flies lay their eggs on the skin and they hatch out into maggots which then eat the animal causing holes in the flesh which become infected. This process can be extremely fast, a sheep can become seriously ill, and even die, within a day of a fly laying its eggs. It is for this reason that government guidance, and good advice, is to check your sheep daily so as to catch this problem before it becomes severe.
Last year we had a lamb who got maggots in her tail. It first I thought it was just a swelling or bruise on her tail but when I caught her and examined it I was horrified to find maggots. As I parted the cut on her tail it is no exaggeration to say that hundreds of maggots tumbled out. It was like a scene in a David Cronenberg horror film. I debrided the area then cleaned it with antiseptic spray and gave her a shot of long acting antibiotic. I then covered the wound with Stockholm Tar. This is tar made from pine wood (also called archangel tar). It is a thick, black sticky paste which covers an area acting as a flexible and antiseptic bandage. It also had a wonderful medicinal smell. We kept her in the barn for two days during which time she had extra rations to give her strength. Thankfully following this, and much to my surprise, she recovered fully and even regrew hair on that area of her tail eventually.
Another group of insects who enjoy, and benefit from, this warmer wetter weather are the ticks. These arachnids have been getting more of a problem year on year. Though I am aware that, through Lyme Disease and other illnesses, ticks can cause problems for humans, I am more concerned about their effects on animals. The dogs and cats come in most days now with ticks in their fur and now our evenings start with the ceremony of de-ticking and trying to rid the pets of their unwelcome visitors.
My attention to this increase in ticks was piqued this morning when out on my regular ‘Walk rather than die of diabetes and obesity‘ walk this morning. I had slowed down to talk to a neighbour in the lane. Then we both noticed something rather odd. It seemed to be a mouse wearing a hat or tiara.
On closer inspection we found out it was a crowd of ticks on its head like some tortuous crown. About 8 or so hard bodied ticks were sucking and engorged on its head. We dislodged the ticks and liberated the mouse to go on its way. I thought I had done my good deed for the day but later read up about ticks and mice. Mice are common hosts to ticks and indeed are a major vector for tick based illness. However, a long scientific study, conducted over 16 years, has found that ticks are really not that damaging to mice for some reason. Indeed, male mice with high tick burdens live longer than males carrying less ticks !
I am sure the mouse was glad to see the back of its bloodsucking visitors and it did serve to remind me to check the animals tonight and to keep checking the sheep.