Alternate title: 12 Empty Acres
Alternate title: The Dangers of Perilla Mint
I’ve been putting off writing this post. I’ve started it several times, but its hard to find the right words. And honestly its not something I want to talk- or even think- about. But it is time to share what has happened and hopefully by posting all the information here I can avoid having to explain what has happened over and over for different people. You see, over the last three weeks – since soon after we moved- every time someone asks me “How is the flock settling in?” I lie and say they are doing fine. But they aren’t. In fact, most of them aren’t alive anymore.
Let me go back to the beginning. At the end of June we moved, family and flock, from KY to FL. Our new farm was carefully chosen for its 12 acres of beautiful grassy fenced off pasture. Unlike our last farm, this pasture is mostly grass with only a bit of brushy/weedy areas around the fence line. They had been keeping horses on it and all the neighboring properties with similar pasture are full of beautiful -and expensive- thoroughbred horses. I assumed that if it was safe for them then my little flock of sheep would do just fine. We hired a livestock transport guy to load the flock in KY and deliver them to their new home in FL on June 30th. Everyone made the journey fine and after unloading we watched them explore. They had never been in such large pastures and it was amusing to watch them travel through the tall grasses, tasting the new (to them) plants as they went. As a rule, sheep and goats don’t usually die from toxic plants because of their grazing habits. They tend to sample small bites of this and that and if something makes them feel bad or tastes funny they won’t eat anymore. Generally, poisonous plants don’t taste good to them so after a bite or two they move on (the exception being Azaleas which are both delicious and deadly). I was more worried about the heat, unknown local predators or them finding a weak spot in the fencing than I was about what they were eating.
On the morning of July 11th, when I went out to check the flock’s water, I stumbled across a dead lamb. And then I realized that only a few sheep were heading towards me -usually the whole flock comes running for treats. My stomach sank. Lily was clearly agitated and – unusually- alone without her two ram lambs. I let Lily guide me and she took me to where one of her lambs was dead in the grass. Following Lily around the pasture I soon found three ewes and three more lambs. Overnight, without any warning, we had lost Etta, Kelly, Liisu, Nimo, Nosi, Nuku and Natalie.
Unable to speak and barely able to see through my tears I texted Chris “I don’t know what to do. What do I do?” But once I calmed down I realized that something had to be done, and quickly. We had lost 7 sheep but we had 5 left, plus Ivy and Grace. Whatever had killed half my flock was still out there. I needed to do something to protect the rest, if I could. I put in a few calls to local vets and soon was put in touch with Dr. Jimenez at the University of Florida vet school. We discussed taking one of the bodies to the state lab for a necropsy and toxicology testing but decided that it would take too long to get results from toxicology to help the rest of the flock (they needed action taken NOW, not in a few weeks when the lab results were back) and that by the time I got one of the bodies down to the state lab a few hours away it would probably be decomposed past the point of doing any good. Instead, Dr Jimenez grabbed a few of her veterinary students and came down to the farm to see what could be done.
Dr. Jimenez and her students performed a necropsy (the animal version of an autopsy) on Nosi’s body out in the field. It was immediately apparent that something was wrong with his respiratory system. The lungs had damaged areas and large blood clots were found throughout the throat. His digestive system (always a delicate area in sheep) was fine and I was pleased to hear that there was no sign of parasites since that is a big problem in ruminants. It was clear that whatever killed Nosi – and the rest of the flock – had affected his lungs/respiratory system. After the necropsy, Dr Jimenez and her students walked through the pasture to see if they could find the culprit. Very soon, she stopped at an area of overgrown weeds along the fence line and identified our killer: Perilla Mint.
Perilla Mint, or Shiso, is – as its name indicates- a member of the mint family. It smells minty, has a square, bumpy stem and small purple flowers. Though a culinary herb for humans it is deadly to all ruminants. Apparently it is toxic to horses but horse don’t usually like to eat it, so it has been allowed to grow and spread out here in horse country. Unfortunately, my flock decided it was delicious. I later discovered evidence that they hadn’t just been eating it where it was mixed in with the grass they were grazing- they were actively seeking it out and eating it with preference over the nice, healthy grass filling the pasture.
After identifying the problem, I walked through the rest of the property and found that one of the front pastures only contained a few small patches which I could quickly pull/dig out. While Chris dug a big hole for half the flock to be buried in I moved the rest of the flock to the safer pasture.
A few days later Leo succumbed, followed shortly by his brother Larry. A week later we lost Kaylee. We aren’t sure if these deaths were due to damage caused before we moved them to the front pasture or whether they found more perilla that we hadn’t caught. As of today- July 28- only Lily, Nigel (one of the ram lambs), Ivy and Grace remain. Two days ago we noticed Nigel limping and discovered that his thick wooly behind had attracted flies and he was suffering from a case of fly strike. I won’t go into details because its gross but we got him cleaned up and on antibiotics and so far he seems to be recovering. It has been almost a week since our last loss and we are hopeful that this is the end. If Nigel and Lily survive another week we will be sending them to NC to live at my parents’ farm (where Francine, Elizabeth and her two ewe lambs from this spring already are- thank goodness). Florida isn’t an ideal place for Shetland sheep with their heavy wool coats and they will be more comfortable in NC. The flock will continue up there and we already have some plans for preserving some of our flock genetics with Elizabeth and her two girls and Nigel (who thankfully we kept intact). Lily was a newcomer to the flock, only added a year ago, but she has such a sweet personality and exceptionally fine fleece that we are very thankful that she has survived.Cross your fingers that these two sheep make it to August 6, when my parents are coming down to rescue them.
We will keep Grace and Ivy on the farm. They are better adapted to the hot weather than the wooly sheep and so far don’t seem to be suffering from the perilla or the flies. Of course, they will be restricted to the front pasture until the rest of the property has been cleared of perilla.
Once we get the perilla mint removed from the property we will be starting over. I’m not sure what our new flock is going to look like. I’ve heard good things about Gulf Coast Native sheep but I’m not sure if my heart is ready to become invested in wool sheep again just yet. Since we already know how to raise sheep and goats I’m considering giving meat sheep and/or goats a try. There are breeds better suited to this climate and an ethnic market for the meat. Once we get rid of the toxic plants our only problem should be internal parasites (worms) which love the hot, damp weather but we have enough pasture that we can rotate the flock to keep the worms under control.
We’d also like to add a small dairy cow to provide milk/cheese for the family and perhaps get a meat calf to keep her company and raise to market weight.
For now we are still coming to terms with our losses (both emotional and financial), researching how best to deal with the perilla mint and beginning to make plans for the future.
The sun setting as we finished burying sheep on the day of our biggest loss.