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Caring for Sheep: not for the faint of heart!

Yesterday I spent most of the day helping with the sheep at the farm.  Always happy to assist when I can as I both learn a lot about caring for sheep, and feel like I am earning my keep around the farm, I agreed to be out there for early afternoon.  The goal: worm the sheep.  Sheep seem to have an inordinate amount of trouble with parasites and require regular worming.  Several of the sheep had shown themselves to be wormy (they get skinny with puffy faces and can die if left untreated) even though they were wormed not too long ago.  So it was time to do it again.

I know virtually nothing about raising or caring for sheep.  My knowledge of animals comes from raising my dogs and cats, which I do ‘naturally.’  By this, I mean that I focus on trying to rear them in a manner as holistically as possible.  I feed them a raw diet based on the latest (yet always changing!) understanding of what their digestive systems are designed to eat, I treat them homeopathically instead of with conventional medications, I avoid all pesticides and chemicals in their environment or on their bodies (yes, that means no flea, tick or heartworm toxins), and minimally vaccinate.

Note: In this region, titers – blood-work that tests for antibodies – are accepted in lieu of vaccines if your animal shows sufficient levels to be considered “safe from challenge.”  Titers have shown me that a single vaccine, given as a puppy, can last for years or even for life.  Booster shots, annual or even every-three-year vaccines are in most cases completely unnecessary.  My research and experience has also shown that repeated vaccinations can be quite harmful, a reason that many vets and veterinary schools are moving towards giving fewer and fewer (see, for example, The Rabies Challenge).

Something I’ve learned through the holistic rearing of my animals is that parasites – in an adult (i.e. over 2 years of age) animal – are an indication of a lack of vitality in the life force or immune system.  In other words, if your over 2-year old dog contracts worms (other than tapeworm), there’s probably something more serious going on that should be looked in to.  I don’t know if something similar would hold for sheep, but I would have to assume that it does.  Surely farmers in the UK, with thousands of sheep, don’t worm their flock every few weeks.

My understanding is that sheep will acquire parasites if they graze in the same area for more than 4-5 days.  I expect in nature they would wander constantly, leaving their droppings for birds to pick clean of parasites.  In Southwestern Ontario, however, fields for livestock are relatively tiny.  Fields more than, say, 30-40 acres (and typically much, much smaller than that) are bought up by industrial farming and used for growing corn or soy.  The poor sheep just can’t wander the country side as they do in the UK.  This, I suspect, either reduces their vitality, or leaves them in fields so full of parasites that they can’t help but acquire them.  Perhaps both.

So yesterday I went to help worm the sheep and, as it turns out, to vaccinate them as well (hmmm…).  The dogs rounded up the sheep and brought them into the barn.  We then put them into a ‘shoot’ – a channel of sorts wide enough for 1 or 2 sheep so that they can’t run around and get away, with a sliding door at each end to control their entry and exit.  We then climbed into the shoot, wrestled into submission, one by one, all 80 lambs, ewes and (yikes!) rams, jabbed them with the vaccine gun, and gave them a dose of wormer by mouth.  We then separated out the rams from the ewes as the ewes will be coming into season soon and lambs born mid-winter don’t have much chance of survival.  The boys were then put in one field, and the girls in the other.

It only took us 5 hours.  By the end, both our backs were aching, we were covered in mud and manure, and I did my penance for vaccinating by getting jabbed a couple of times by the dirty needle.  My left hand is rather infected today as a result, and my legs are covered in bruises from being rammed by those big horns, or kicked.  And I want to become a sheep farmer…why was that again?

If I ever get my little farm, which I dream about on a daily basis, I plan to naturally raise my sheep.  Hopefully that means not having to do the above, although I expect some worming may still be necessary from everything I’ve heard.  Even the most dedicated of holistic sheep farmers seem to have to periodically worm their sheep.  I suspect, as mentioned above, that having limited land may make this a requirement.  Also it seems that there are minerals missing in our soil – sheep are not indigenous to North America so that is not altogether surprising.  I will have a lot to learn if I go down this road, but I am looking forward to it, hopefully someday fairly soon.


2 Responses

  1. Interesting reading Helene and if you are interested in part of the reason the sheep get the worms then you were on the right track when you mentioned minerals. Look up the work of Pat Coleby. She specialises in the health of livestock from an holistic perspective looking at the effect of a deficiency of minerals on the overall health of the animal and which parasites the animals are then prone to. Not got time to give more info now but if you are interested let me know and I’ll expand. I would highly recommend Pat’s books to anyone who will be caring for goats and sheep. She has books on other animals but I only have those two.


  2. Hi Kerry – Pat Coleby’s book looks very interesting and I’ll definitely order a copy. I’m looking forward to having some sheep of my own someday, hopefully not too far into the future!

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