It seems only a short time ago that we had warm sunny days, dry days, pleasant days, in fact, ideal days for lambs to start their lives. However, our ewes eschewed starting lambing during this period ; “too easy” they said. They have waited until just after the hail and sleet of yesterday and the start of Storm Gareth today and decided that this is the perfect time to start lambing. The pervesity of ewes knows no bounds.
We have our fingers firmly crossed and our lambing box at the ready and I’ve made this short post just to explain that there will be little activity on this site for the next few weeks.
I don’t know how many conversations I have had in the last month about how wonderful our recent weather has been. Probably every time I venture out of the smallholding I meet someone who is enjoying our present heatwave. In the evening, on the television, reporters wax lyrical that we are enjoying higher temperature than ever (even higher than the last record summer in 1976) and illustrate their reports with film of happy sunbathers enjoying ice-creams or sunbathing. But I can’t share the joy.
I can’t share the joy even though I have gone swimming in the sea twice a week recently (and I can assure you swimming in the sea is not something one is able to do often off the coast of North Wales). I can not join in the bonhomie despite the fact that many of the garden flowers are looking spectacularly good this summer and the smells in the garden are wonderful. I can’t get happy despite the schadenfreude that comes form seeing the difference in electricity production between our solar scheme and our neighbours hydro system. Even the recognition that I sheared the sheep just in time doesn’t cheer me. No, despite all these benefits I stay resolutely downhearted. Why ?
I am concerned because this heatwave is a growing problem. For those on mains water, and those living and working in the town, then dry hot weather is no great problem. It is even a boon to their recreation time. The occasional hose-pipe ban may interfere with gardening but the downsides are fairly minor. Those of us who rely on springs for our water and who have to tend for animals, or grow crops, see things very differently.
Our spring emerges from a hill about a mile from the main farm. It supplies us and our neighbours’s stable and cattle. Though the spring still works it has become a shadow of its former self and is now little more than a trickle. As the flow is so slow some of the pipes have become clogged up with silt and we have had to clean them through. The flow is so slow that we have had to avoid using the source. We did explore the area around and looked for alternative sources but there were none. Many of the streams and smaller rivers have dried up. The main brook that runs through our meadows is also very weak. Previously four or five feet wide and about a foot deep it is now no more than 2 feet wide and 6 inches in depth. However, using a petrol water pump it is our main source of water for the foreseeable future. We pump the water from here up to water butts at the farm and then disperse the water.
Now each day starts and ends by shifting water to the animals around the farm. This lets one become painfully aware of the “weight of water” and quickly remember the information from school that 1 litre of water weighs 1 kilogram. Our smaller animals drink about 10 litres a day each and the cattle and horses much more. This is a lot of water to move in buckets. As humans we drink less but consume even more as we like to flush toilets, cook, wash dishes and take showers. So there is a large component of shifting water for ourselves also. In addition to this we need to water the vegetables and the greenhouse if we are to see any crops this year. The only members of the smallholding not calling on us in this time of difficulty are the bees who seem to be enjoying this wonderful weather that has brought so many flowers out in force.
I should perhaps clarify a statement that I made above. This is the question of showers. We no longer take showers at home. The reason we go swimming in the sea is for hygiene rather than pleasure (the jelly fish make sure of that) and if this weather goes on I think there might be a market for shower gel that works well with sea water. This has also been the reason for our visits to the leisure centre as swimming and showers are free to the elderly in the parish
I know that this weather will not persist for ever. Unless this is the beginning of Armageddon then I know we will see rain again. It is impossible to think of North Wales without thinking of rain. But I do fear that these variations in climate are becoming commoner and more worrisome. Extremes in weather were predicted by the models of climate change (though it was also predicted to be wetter on average) and we are going to have to find ways to live with these as well as finding ways to stop them worsening.
Anyway, back to moving water from place to place. I had only intended to write a short note to apologise that I had neglected my blog over the last two weeks. Hopefully, it is now clear that I was neither resting or enjoying this wonderful weather.
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.
Storm Doris arrived this morning but we seemed to miss most of the damage. A lot of branches were down and strewn over the road but only a couple of old trees in the wood were actually down. Doris must have brought down some power lines as we lost the electricity. However, as we have the woodburners and the range, we had heat, hot water and the ability to cook. The addition of a battery powered radio meant we thought we had a quiet relaxing day ahead of us. Unfortunately the sheep had other plans for us.
While checking the fences I noticed one ewe who was keeping herself apart from the flock. I thought she might be starting to labour but could not see any signs she had begun. On checking, a bit later, it was clear she was much worse. She was down and unable to rise and was not aware of her surroundings. I thought she had twin lamb disease and gave her the high energy drink. This had only partial effect and we decided on a trip to the vets.
She had decided to take unwell half a mile from the road and we would have to lug her to the pick-up. This was no easy task (she weighs around 9 stores) but I found that a builder’s sack made this manageable with a mixture of lifting and dragging. I am now going to keep a couple of builders’ bags ready for emergency stretcher use.
The vet agreed with us and it was clear that she was beginning to respond to the drink. She gave some subcutaneous calcium and with the combination of the two she made good headway and we started for home.
En route home we noticed that a sheep, we had seen on the town journey, was stuck in an awkward position an hour later. After climbing up a wall, crossing a small river (engorged by storm Doris) I was able to get to her. She was trapped but easily freed.
By the time we got home and returned the ewe to her flock she was much improved. We moved her and her fellows into the top field where there is hopefully more browse. She was back on her legs and moving well. Now all we have to do is wait for the lambing to start next week.