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The bleating of the lambs

News Features
Lambing Season begins

The bleating of the lambs

The lambing season, currently in full swing, is one of the busiest and most stressful times of the year for sheep farmers, as Tourmakeady farmer Tom Staunton outlines

News Feature
Anton McNulty

FOR many the sight of newly-born lambs bouncing around a field is one of the sure signs of spring and an indicator that the winter is behind us. But for sheep farmers, the lambing season is one of the most tiresome, stressful and difficult times of the year.
All across the county lowland and hill sheep farmers will be out walking the land at first light to ensure their flock is safe and it will be past midnight before they get some sleep. They will have to keep an eye on ewes that are close to lambing, look for the tell-tale signs of disease and on top of that they have to worry about predators such as foxes and crows.
Tourmakeady sheep farmer Tom Staunton told The Mayo News that most people outside the sheep farming sector have no idea of the hassle farmers have to go through during this time, which for some will last into April. With a flock of 250 lowland and mountain ewes, Tom expects to get 400 lambs by the end of the season but explained that farmers in the west face bigger challenges because of the terrain and the nature of the farms.
“This is a 24-hour shift where you have to deal with all sorts of problems and it is one of the most tiresome times of the year. The lowland sheep started lambing in February but the mountain sheep ewes have just started now. My day is from about six in the morning until 12 at night and after you do that for a couple of months you will be well tired. My season generally runs from the start of February until the end of March but it all depends on the size of the flock.
“At six o’clock this morning the first thing I noticed was a sheep lambing but the lamb was too big. The head was swollen up and the tongue was swollen in the mouth. I had to catch her and, luckily enough, they survived. But if I was half an hour later they could have been gone and those are the type of things you are up against. I will be up until 12 at night until the end of March but you might have to stay up longer if a sheep is beginning to lamb. You will have to stay around, you have no control over it, if you came around in the morning and the lamb was dead, you’d be asking yourself why you didn’t stay around for another half hour.
“In the west of Ireland the farms are fragmented where you would have a few acres here and there and there is a lot of travelling to get to them. If it was all one area it would make it easier to manage but it is hard going if you have five or six places to travel to a couple of times a day. Weather has a big bearing on it; if it is cold and wet you will have to bring the lambs indoors but if the weather is fine it makes life a lot easier for you,” he explained.
One of the biggest challenges for farmers is quickly identifying illnesses and diseases which lambs may be infected with after they are born. E-coli scour and watery mouth are some of the biggest bacterial challenges facing newborn lambs in their first days of life. This disease is usually caused by oral ingestion of bacteria which multiply and produce toxins in the gut wall, and can be fatal if it is not treated. Tom explained that a ten per cent mortality rate during lambing would be seen as a good return and farmers receive training from Teagasc on ways of dealing with these issues.
“If it [E-coli] comes on your farm you can have high mortality very fast unless you cope with it immediately. It affected me in the past but there are numerous things that can affect your farm and there isn’t a morning that you would get up and there isn’t a problem or two to solve. You try to cover your back as best you can and learn from previous years but there is always something around the corner.”