A Shepherd Without A Flock

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.

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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.

2016-07-20 10.32.21.jpgA 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.

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The sun setting as we finished burying sheep on the day of our biggest loss.

2016 Wool Test Results

We just got back the results from the micron testing we had done on this year’s fleeces. Like last year, we sent samples to Texas A&M for testing. I posted some information about what micron testing is all about in last year’s post in case you aren’t familiar with it.

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*note: three of the sheep (Jazz, Juliet, Juno) included in the report are Corriedales from my mom’s flock

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It is interesting to note that the ewe I bought last summer (Lily) has the finest fleece of the group — this is what I was expecting and hoping when I purchased her. Eventually the goal is that her genetics will get mixed into the flock, through strategic breeding, to increase the quality of all the fleeces.

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The ram that we used on the ewes last breeding, Toffee, also has a very fine fleece as evidence by both our first hand experience with him and the test results. Our hope is that by using rams with fleeces like this we will be able to increase the fineness of the fleeces in future generations but hopefully preserve some of the wool length and density that our ewes have.

Last Lamb of the Season- Kaylee’s Nigel

It had been days since the last lambing and Kaylee wasn’t showing any signs of labor so I stopped watching her like a hawk and decided I’d have to be patient and she would have her lamb(s) when she was good and ready. When I walked out to the back of the pasture to check the flock today I was mostly checking on the lambs and not expecting to find any changes with Kaylee.

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I was in for a surprise! Kaylee was already well into labor when I spotted her, with the lambs nose and front hooves sticking out. I’m not sure how long she had been in active labor at this point, but she continued for at least thirty minutes while I was watching. It is amazing and somewhat terrifying how long they can walk around with a lamb’s face sticking out of their rear ends. Every time I catch a ewe at this stage and it is a prolonged labor I am certain that the lamb isn’t going to make it. They don’t take their first breath until after they are fully born- until then they get their oxygen through the umbilical cord- and even though I *know* this, when I see the still little face poking out, unbreathing, I always think the lamb must be dead. Thankfully, my fears have always been misplaced.

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This lamb took a particularly long time being born because he was GIANT. We have had several really large lambs this year which is surprising because the stud ram we used isn’t particularly large. I haven’t actually had a chance to weigh him yet, but I’m assuming he is at least 9lb which is really large for a Shetland lamb, even a single.

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This little guy, now named Nigel, isn’t just big- he is also strong and feisty! His feet had barely touched ground before he was up and nursing- much faster than the average lamb in my opinion. The combination of his healthy vigor at birth and the fleeces of both his mom and dad make this fella a great option for breeding when he is older. Unfortunately, he is too closely related to most of the ewes in my flock (mom, Kaylee, is sister, daughter or aunt to most of the other breeding ewes) to keep him as a stud for my flock. Instead, I’m going to offer him up for sale. If he doesn’t sell I would be happy to keep him as a wether- i think his fleece will be nice enough to justify keeping him as a “fiber boy”- but it would be a shape not to let him share is genes with another flock!

2016 Lambing Stats

I am pretty sure we are done with lambing for the season (though Etta could conceivably surprise us with a late lamb). Here is what we ended up with:

Stud Ram: Honor Flock Toffee from Underhill Farm IN S38604

April 18th—twin ewes (Elizabeth) –Nora (solid dk brown) & Nola (white)

April 23rd—single ewe (Lana) – 6lb –Nina (moorit gulmoget)

April 23rd—single ewe (Liisu)—8lb –Nuku (moorit gulmoget)

April 24th—twin ewes (Kelly) –6lb & 6.5lb –Nellie & Natalie (fawn katmoget)

April 25th—twin rams (Lily)-5lb & 9lb Nimoy and Nosferatu (solid black)

April 29th—single ram (Kaylee)- Nigel (solid dark brown)

 

I’m really happy with  how everything turned out; not only did everyone have smooth, safe deliveries with healthy lambs but we ended up with mostly girls which is ideal. With the exception of Nina (who belongs to Lana’s owner, Natalie) I think I’ll keep all of the girls as part of my flock and, in the future, part of my breeding program. Now I just need to decide which of the boys I want to keep, if any, and if I want to keep them as wethers or possibly keep one as a future stud ram. I’m considering keeping one of Lily’s ram lambs as a stud since a) I would like to get more of her blood line in my flock and b) the only ewe he will be related to for next year’s breeding is his mom, Lily, and it would be easy to separate her for breeding season. All the other adult ewes are from a totally different genetic line so it would be a good way to introduce some new genes and mix things up a bit. The only problem is that I’m not sure I want to use an exceptionally small ram or an exceptionally large ram for breeding. My flock already tends towards stockiness and I don’t want to increase the size in future generations. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem wise to use a ram who was undersized and wobbly at birth….Decisions, decisions!

Lambs Playing

We’ve had rain more or less constantly since yesterday afternoon, so the ewes have been keeping the lambs tucked away in the barn most of the time. In between showers, though, they venture out into the sun to play.

Nimoy is still spending more time on his own and not at his mother’s side than I’d like, but he seems to be getting enough to eat (he is pooping/peeing and doesn’t have sunken in sides). I’ve tried giving him a bottle of formula but he doesn’t like it and I’ve mostly just managed to squirt it all over myself with very little making it inside the lamb. I figure if he were really hungry he’d be more interested, or at least fight me less about it, so I’m taking it as a good sign. It may just be that he is small and independent and perfectly healthy, but I’ll continue to keep a close eye on him.

Two Boys for Lily

I thought Lily would be one of the first to lamb. She started looking huge before anyone else and her udder came in early and has looked painfully full for weeks. Every day I think “today is the day.”

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Today she was acting a little bit off– finding weird places to nap separate from the rest of the flock– but she is always somewhat independent and it was a hot day so everyone was seeking out shady spots to nap.

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I didn’t think much of it– she has fooled me too many times already! And to be honest, I was a bit distracted this afternoon catching Etta, hauling her across the pasture and then shearing her. We both were of the opinion that it was far too hot and we are both far too pregnant for that sort of effort, but it had to be done. After finishing with Etta I came inside for a dinner of leftover pizza and a shower. I was also supposed to have a virgin pina colada that I’d been looking forward to all afternoon- but my blender died. Anyway….after that I went back out to check on the ladies in the maternity yard, including a newly shorn Etta,  and the few pregnant girls left out with the rest of the flock (Lily and Kaylee). But Lily wasn’t with the flock.

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Sheep- even jet black ones- are very easy to spot at night if you have a good flashlight because their eyes reflect the light. I soon found her at the far back end of the pasture in their favorite spot under the bushes. As I got closer my flashlight beam reflected off of not one but three sets of eyes, two much closer to the ground!

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The twins must have been born not long ago because they were barely cleaned off yet. Sometime between 7pm when I finished shearing Etta and went inside and 9:30 when I went back out to check the flock.

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After 6 girls in a row we finally have two little boys. I would have liked girls from Lily because I’d really like to get more of her genetics in the flock, but even if we just keep these two as wethers I think that their fleeces will make it worthwhile. I may even keep one as an intact ram to use for breeding the part of the flock that he isn’t related to. I think that they are both solid black (its hard to tell when they aren’t fully clean and dry yet). The big one is named Nosferatu (Nosie) and the little one is Nimoy.

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In the past when we have had twins they have always been similar in size but this time one of them is nearly double the size of the other! The larger one is 9lb which makes him the largest lamb we’ve had so far, I think, and the smaller is 5lb which may make him the smallest we’ve had (though we’ve had  several at 5.5lb). And of course together the extreme size difference makes them look even more exaggerated.

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I’m a little bit worried about the small one, Nimoy,  because he is so little and is a little wobbly, but he was on his feet when I found him and doesn’t have any trouble walking around. It took him a while to figure out how to nurse but to be fair, Lily’s udder is kind of unusual shaped and the teats are tucked behind her legs in a way that the lambs have to really search for them, or she has to lift her leg out of the way. She also kept deciding he needed more cleaning off anytime he got close. Finally I grabbed hold of Lily and made her stand still while I literally put the teat in Nimoy’s mouth. Thankfully once he had experienced nursing he caught on quickly and it wasn’t long before he was able to find the teat by himself and get a nice long drink. I do have a bottle on hand if he ends up needing supplementing, but hopefully it won’t come to that!

Now that Lily has lambed the only two ewes left are Kaylee and Etta. Kaylee is definitely pregnant but Etta may not be. I have a hard time guessing when Kaylee is due– she and her sister Kelly both carry their lambs very well and don’t get giant or uncomfortable looking, even when carrying average sized twins. She has a round belly and a well developed udder so she could lamb tonight– or next week. If Etta is pregnant at all I suspect she won’t lamb for a while, unless she is carrying a small single, because she isn’t round in the belly and her udder is small. I didn’t actually plan to breed Etta this year anyway so I’d be perfectly happy if she ends up not lambing.