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Lambing Season is Here

Lambing Season - A Busy Time for Farmers

Although some farmers lamb before Christmas, lambing season is in full swing across the country during March and April, making it probably one of the busiest times of the year for farmers and some veterinary staff. With the cooler weather in some parts of the country, some lambs are being born within warm sheds in order to give them a fighting start at life and many will already be in the fields.

For many farmers, this is the time of joy and birth, and there is nothing more enjoyable than watching the young lambs investigate their new surroundings. It can be even more fun watching all the young lambs team up and run around the field, skipping and jumping together.

There are also many complications which can come with lambing, and Toxoplasmosis is one of these. Toxoplasmosis is caused by the protozoan parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, and is a zoonotic infection. This means it can be passed on to people. With this protozoan infection, cats are the definitive host. Animals and people can become infected by touching the litter of the infected cat, by cuts and grazes touching contaminated earth and ingestion of oocysts within the ground or within the tissues of contaminated meat. It can also be passed on vertically, i.e. from mother to foetus.

So, how does this affect sheep and lambs? Well, cats will consume prey, in particular rodents and birds, which are infected with Toxoplasmosis. Once infected, cats will shed literally millions of oocysts within their faeces. Sheep, while grazing for grass, will ingest these oocysts and will then become infected also. If a ewe is pregnant and becomes infected, then it can cause severe complications for the undeveloped lamb. These complications can vary depending on the pregnancy stage that the infection was contracted.

  • Early gestation – will most likely cause stillborn lambs. This is because the foetus would still be undeveloped with a low immune system, therefore not able to fight the infection.
  • Mid-gestation – could cause stillborn lambs or live, but very feeble lambs. Stillborn lambs may also appear mummified.
  • Late gestation – lambs may be stillborn or mummified, however they may also appear healthy but will be infected.

As this is a zoonotic infection, it is important to be aware of the risks of Toxoplasmosis. People who are immunosuppressed should take this into consideration when working with animals. Pregnant woman, because of the high risk of infections during lambing, should avoid all contact. Toxoplasmosis can be transmitted vertically in humans too.

There are many other health issues which lambs and ewes need to contend with, and some examples include:

  • Twin Lamb Disease
  • Hypothermia
  • Meningitis
  • Chlamydiosis

Aside from the health issues, ewes can be particularly vulnerable when they are pregnant. Any procedures, transportation or stressful situations can be detrimental to the health of the unborn lamb. This includes walking through fields, particularly with dogs. Dogs should be kept on a lead and away from the sheep to prevent any harassment or stress to the ewes.

Sheep can have a tendency to end up on their backs, although unintended, and during this season pregnant ewes, as their abdominal region is enlarged, can end up not being able to roll back over. This is also the case when they are overweight or if they have a heavy woollen coat. When they become stuck, this can cause gastric gas to build up from the fermenting grass in their stomach, and this will eventually enlarge to the point where it compresses the lungs causing suffocation.

How Can Members of the Public Help at this Busy Time

There are many things we can do to help the welfare of the lambs and ewes during this season.

  • Keep dogs under control.

    If out walking the dog(s) try and avoid fields which hold pregnant ewes or lambs. If this is impossible, then ensure the dog(s) are kept on a lead and under full control. Keep as far away from the sheep as possible. It is very stressful for the pregnant ewes, or mothering ewes and young lambs, to be chased or harassed by dogs.

  • Help a stuck ewe.

    If you see a ewe which has rolled on its back, then try and help it by rolling it back over. This can be a difficult task but it will save a life. Pregnant ewes again, can become highly stressed with people coming too near, so it may be worth alerting the farmer if possible. If no farmer is available then it is important to get the ewe back onto its feet.

  • Alert a farmer if you see a distressed sheep or lamb.

If you see a lost lamb, sheep stuck outside the fence, or generally showing distress, then alert the farmer. Mother and young being separated will only cause panic, and if distressed then it may well be a health issue which is a cause for concern.

So, we can all do our bit for the lambing season and enjoy watching these amazing animals.

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