Monday, 18 July 2011

New bird and wildlife sightings

Our neighbour John Fleming is a very keen bird and wildlife enthusiast and has kindly agreed to send us copies of his sightings and occasional photos so we can post them here regularly. This not only shows what a fantastic place Overtown is for wildlife, but it is a really excellent way for us to see what a positive effect our farm management can have on our wild environment and we are very grateful to John for the time and trouble he takes in recording it all both in words and pictures.
We already have records going back several months so if you are interested in viewing them, go to our news page where you can find an archive of records in the "Downloads" section. It is worth it alone for Johns' wonderful picture of Mandarin ducks!
So, here are the records for July so far.....

13th July 2011

South of Overtown farm at 9.30am on new mown hay, 20 Mistle thrushes, 30 Starlings, 1 Raven, 1 Herring gull, 130 Rooks, 110 Jackdaws. At garden feeders and on lawn , Ebworth park cottages between 1.30pm...2pm , 1 juv Nuthatch,a male, female and juvenile Great spotted woodpeckers, pair of Bullfinches, female pied wagtail, 2 Goldfinches and 1 juv, female Blackbird, pair of House sparrows, max of 8 young Blue tits and 2 adults and 4 young Great tits. 2 young Carrion crows and male , female and 2 young Chaffinches.

15th July 2011

In scrub near Foston's Ash 8.30am, 1 male Redstart in moult, 2 Goldcrests, 1
Treecreeper, 1 Coal tit, 6 Blue tits, 3 Great tits, 1 Robin, pr Bullfinches, 2
West of Overtown farm in hedge and on fence 9.30am, 1 male Redstart, 1 male Whitethroat, plus, in field feeding on arable seeds, flock of finches with 6 Linnets, 5 Goldfinches and 50 + Greenfinches.

18th July 2011

Today at Ebworth park cottages, 8.30am, 3 Willow warblers arrived in the garden with a number of Blue tits and Great tits, the w.w's flitted around briefly before heading off down the adjacent field towards the scrubby area, the tits stayed around long enough to sample the peanuts and fat balls. A Raven in moult and 3 un-moulting birds flew over north-east calling at 3.30pm.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Silage time and staring at sheep poo!

This week, we managed to take advantage of the sunny weather and got some silage cut, baled and wrapped just before the rain came in. The crop was a bit light in places but was a mixture of ryegrass, white clover and lucerne (Alfalfa) so what it lacks in bulk it will make up for in protein content. As it is safely covered in a waterproof, airtight black plastic jacket to preserve it, there is no urgency to get it in from the field and under cover but rooks and crows can be a bit of a pain if they decide to peck holes in the plastic. This breaks the seal and instead of the grass pickling in its own acidic juices to preserve it, it just goes rotten and mouldy. Foxes can sometimes damage the wrap too as they seem to enjoy jumping up and down on the bales and using them like bouncy castles and our collie pack have been known to use them for a bit of dog agility from time-to-time!
Unfortunately, the straw we have bought from our brother-in-law, Paul, near Cirencester was rained on as soon as it was baled so it will take a bit of time for the bales to dry out before they can be finally stacked in the barn but at least Paul was able to get the crop harvested and safely into store before it rained.

A lot of people have already take a cut of hay and will be on second cut silage at least but we are always a few weeks behind. This is because we are higher so the growing season is later and we also have to graze the sheep on most of the fields in the winter so the grass loses several months growing time. The other reason is that the various environmental schemes we are in stipulate that we can't cut till early July anyway. This is to allow wild flowers to set seed and ground nesting birds such as the skylark to raise a brood of chicks and get them safely fledged. Early cuts of forage can also threaten leverets (baby hares) which are "parked" by their mothers in long grass, often left hidden for a whole day before she comes back to feed them. Their instinct is to lie low and stay still, and this means they are very vulnerable when big machinery is in the area. Deer fawns are also likely to be killed or injured if they have been left by their mothers in the same way, and we always keep an eye out for them when mowing and try to move them on to a safer patch, or mow round them till they move of their own accord if we can.

The lambs are growing well and I have been doing fecal egg counts to determine whether they need worming or not which means I spend a happy hour gazing down a microscope at diluted sheep poo every 2-3 weeks during the summer. We have been picked as a focus farm as part of the South West Healthy Livestock Initiative (SWHLI), run jointly by ADAS and Duchy College and part of the deal is that we have been loaned a FECpac for the 2 year duration of the project. After training, this enables us to check not only the level of internal parasites in the lambs but also whether they actually need treating and if so, with what type of wormer. Just like antibiotic resistance in humans due to over-use, anthelmintic (wormer) resistance is becoming a problem in livestock, including horses and so targeted worming using the right product, in the correct dose at the right time and only when the treatment threshold has been reached, is vital to make sure we don't run out of effective treatment options.
Because we also use grazing management within the organic system to reduce the parasite burden in the fields, our worm counts have been historically low and we often only have to treat the lambs only once a season but warm, wet weather following the long dry spell means the worm eggs will hatch en mass so regular monitoring is really important. I suspect I shall be spending many more hours with my trusty microscope yet!

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Rain at last!... and now we shear the sheep

Well, Open Farm Sunday on June 12th was incredibly wet but for those who braved the horizontal rain, there was lots to do including a sheep-shearing demonstration, bottle feeding lambs and a children's "Make your own Shaun the Sheep using Overtown Wool" competition. Numbers were predictably down by around 50% but we still had around 80 visitors and the cream teas went down well, raising £130 for charity. There are "a few" packs of scones left in the freezer so we plan to wait till we have a good forecast and then hold an impromptu cream tea picnic to raise money for Tree of Life for animals veterinary hospital in Rajasthan, India. I will publish the date on the website and all are welcome. It will be a very informal event....just bring a rug or chair to sit on, some friends and family and we will supply the cream tea!

The next job is sheep shearing. Mark Taylor who works for us on a regular basis and did the demo at OFS, has already sheared the ewe lambs and rams so it is just the main flock left for the contract shearers to do now. The forecast is for wet weather this week and they are coming tomorrow so we will get the ewes in this evening and they can spend the night in the barn.
Sheep have to be totally dry or the shears just won't cut through the fleece and if they are cold then the lanolin (natural oils) in the wool tends to be a bit sticky and this also makes it difficult so a bit of time spent today will save an awful lot of bother tomorrow.

In a couple of weeks and once the wool has grown back a little, we will apply a fly repellent that should protect the sheep and lambs from blow flies for around 8 weeks. The Greenbottle is the main culprit and will lay its eggs on areas of dirty or waterlogged wool and in ideal conditions they will hatch out into maggots within 12 hours! The maggots initially feed on the wool or get into small wounds but the fluid they excrete irritates the skin and causes sore patches that eventually end up as small wounds. These get infected and from there the maggots can start to attack the underlying tissue. If left untreated, sheep will die from dehydration due to skin damage and systemic toxicity due to the waste products the maggots excrete into their system. It is a horrible death but although it is impossible to prevent all cases, it is fortunately preventable in most cases. However, as the springs get milder and wetter, we are starting to see cases as early as March when we would not normally be concerned till early May or even in to June. We can't shear too early here as we are so high up and the weather can still be quite cold into May and early June but if the weather is mild and the fly strike risk increases, shearing is brought forward a bit. It's a balancing act but the welfare of the sheep is the deciding factor.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

29th May 2011...still no rain!

We have just got back from 5 wonderful days in the Lake District, staying (just for a change) on a sheep farm between the lakes of Brotherswater and Ullswater that does B&B and also has a fantastic self-catering property, converted from an old traditional cow byre. We first went there 8 years ago and came back with one of their collie puppies as a souvenir and have been going back ever since for a post-lambing sanity break. I am loathed to tell you where it is or you will all want to go but it really is too good to keep to myself so here it is, Deepdale Hall near Patterdale, run by Chris Brown and his family.

We had some incredible rain the first day we were there and seeing water being blown uphill along the Kirkstone Pass between Patterdale and Windermere was quite amazing. So was being stuck in a sudden hail storm 2500 feet up on Roman road called High Street that runs along the top of a section of mountain, ending up eventually at Troutbeck, but the sun came out between showers and the views were worth both the stiff climb and the buffeting from the weather.

Back at home, and despite a few drizzle showers, it is still so dry that the dogs kick up little puffs of dust as they run about in the fields and the cracks are deepening by the day. However, the forecast for tomorrow is for heavy rain I make no apologies for being glad of it, bank holiday or no bank holiday!

We had one lamb while we were away and are now down to just three to go but none of them look in much of a hurry. If it wasn't for the ravens that are constantly prowling the paddock, sneaking up on the lambs and calves and pulling their tails, we would let the ewes out to lamb in the field, but for as long as the ravens are there, the lambs would be in real danger so the ewes are stuck indoors for the duration.

The next event on the calender is Open Farm Sunday on June 12th. We have been incredibly lucky with the weather the last two years but I am starting to plan the events and with the way the weather keeps doing strange things, I will also sort out a wet weather contingency just in we can't run the farm walk and need to have the cream teas and plans stall indoors. Luckily, the barn is big but I hope the three ewes will have lambed by then or we will be sharing with them!

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The boring bit!

Well, here we are, stuck with 16 ewes still in the shed and none of them looking remotely like lambing. This is the boring bit when the workload seems to be slightly less but more fiddly and nothing much happens on the giving birth front....until you dare to go and do something else for a bit and then you come back to find all hell has broken loose!
I was hoping the recent thunderstorms would get them moving but all we had was a rather lovely set of twin ewe lambs a couple of days later. The rest will doubtless lamb when they are ready. You can't rush these things! Meanwhile, the cows continue to produce a calf every few days which makes a pleasant change.

Sadly, Churchill died two days after my last blog post. He had been a bit off-colour the previous night so I put him under the heat lamb in the TLC department. He was on his feet and waiting for his breakfast the next morning, wagging his tail as usual when I went over to say hello but by lunchtime he had died, curled up peacefully where I left him.
Meanwhile, I still have a right old rag, tag and bobtail brigade of about 10 lambs to keep me busy. Some are with their mothers but the ewes don't have enough milk for two lambs and some had to be taken away from their mothers because they had no milk at all. Others were fostered on but are having a hard time competing with the ewe's own lamb who is inevitably bigger than the foster lamb as we foster onto "singles" and single lambs are generally bigger than twins or triplets.
I now have a milk feeder set up in the barn that can feed 6 lambs at a time and I have got them all trained to drink from it. The lambs can come in from the paddock and drink any time which is much more natural and better for their digestive systems, and saves me an awful lot of bottle feeding.
However, some of them are incredibly tame and I can generally be seen walking across the paddock to feed my horses with a small flock of tiny sheep pursuing me relentlessly.There's Stampy (my favourite), Stampy's foster sister, Peachy, Blue dot, Red 33.....

Now lambing has slowed down, we are starting to think of other things (like a holiday!!!) so the lambing bit of the blog is pretty much at an end. However, several people have said they enjoy catching up with what we are doing (clearly there is nothing better on tv!) so I will do my best to post whenever something interesting is going on.
In the meantime, the next big event on the calender is Open Farm Sunday, a national event where we throw the doors open to the public for an afternoon of farm walks, displays, lamb cuddling, plant sales and cream teas. If you care to join us on Sunday 12th June from 1pm to 5pm, we will be delighted to see you. Entrance is free, cream teas are in aid of Tree of Life for Animals Veterinary Hospital in Rajasthan, India and if it rains, we will move it all in to the barn and carry on regardless!

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Day 20...almost there!

In the blink of an eye we went from 160+ still to lamb at our "open afternoon" last Saturday to only 23 today!
It has been without a doubt the fastest lambing have ever had and it has been exhausting with the night shift ending anything between 3am and even 5.45am on one occasion... marathon 22 hour shift! The worst bit is keeping on top of the ewes and lambs in the "special care unit" and any other problems while the routine goes on around us but the majority of the lambs are now out in the fields and thriving and anyone walking in the area can't fail to see them as they are split into groups of 50-60 and cover virtually the whole farm.

As to Churchill, he is 3 weeks old today and has grown large and solid but he still lurches from one near death experience to another every few days. He seems particularly incapable of maintaining his body temperature in the normal range of 38-39 degrees and for him, "normal" seems to be 35-36. In theory, he should not be able to function at that level of hypothermia but he skips about and plays with the other lambs. He's certainly a paradox. I suspect he has far more developmental problems than those that are immediately visible and there are no guarantees that he will survive but if I can just nurse him over the next two weeks and get him on solid food and nibbling a bit of grass then we will be almost home and dry. Bottle fed lambs must be weaned at 5 weeks of age as they get bloat if they are on formula milk after that age and that is a serious and life-threatening condition in a lamb.
I will let you know how he does.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Day 11... we've hit the half way mark

Day 11 and we are just about half way through lambing with around 170 of the 340 ewes left to go.

The day starts at 5am when Martin gets out to check the sheep and pen up any who have lambed in the break between night and day shift. I fall out of bed around 8am depending on how late a night it has been and Fay and Mark who work for us, arrive at 8am to feed the ewes and start the routine work of marking ewes and lambs, turning them out of the pens and mucking out ready for the next lot.

The ewes stay in individual pens with their lambs for the first 24 hours to allow them time to bond and make sure the lambs are suckling properly and then they go into another barn with other ewes and lambs for a further 24 hours so we can be certain they are able to recognise each other and stick together when they are turned out into the field with other sheep.

As soon as I get up I feed any weak or sickly lambs, carry out any necessary veterinary treatments and then mark the pens that are ready to be turned out and then I go in for breakfast and feed the cats, horses, rabbits and dogs and catch up on any other domestic bits and bobs before going back out to the lambing sheds again around 9.30. I also do the night lambing so, other than meal breaks, I stay out there till it all goes quiet which can be any time from midnight to 3am or later. Our old caravan is parked right next to the lambing shed and I sleep there for the duration. From the doorway, I can see anything that is lambing so I don't have to keep going in and out, especially when it’s more normal lambing weather, which is cold, wet and windy. We call it Lamb Van Central, or LVC for short and with a kettle and a heater in there, it makes the night lambing a lot more pleasant.

During the day, we all have our own jobs but if an ewe needs assistance to lamb then whoever is free deals with it. Once the lambs are born, their navels are sprayed with strong iodine solution to dry them up as quickly as possible and stop bacteria from getting in and causing infection. It's a messy job and by the time we have carried the lambs to the pens, the iodine stains on our hands make us look as if we have a serious nicotine habit!

We ultrasound scan our ewes in February so we know exactly how many lambs to expect and put a spray mark on the ewes back to indicate whether she is carrying a set of triplets (blue mark) a single lamb (green mark) or twins (no mark). This year we had 28 sets of triplets at scanning and as far as I can tell, there are only 9 left to lamb. Ewes have two teats, as opposed to 4 in cattle and 2 lambs is the optimum so we don't leave triplets on the ewe and always foster on the "spare" lamb on to an ewe with a single lamb. Some people rear triplets on the ewe but they need extra feeding and a lot more care so we prefer to match them up with a good foster mother and let her do the work!

I try not to have orphan lambs around because cute as they, they are a bit of a nuisance. They imprint on humans and follow me around all the time and yell for food as soon as they see me but inevitably, however careful we are, there will always be the odd lamb that doesn't thrive and ends upon the bottle for one reason or another. This may be because the ewe develops mastitis (an infection in the udder that reduces or stops milk production) or because a lamb that has been fostered is rejected by the ewe or because it is just too weak and fragile to survive without human intervention. Each year, we have a small group of lambs that get trained to feed from a milk feeder to reduce the bottle-feeding but they are still friendly and people orientated and some very strong characters emerge. At the moment, I have 4 lambs who are with their mothers but need a "top-up" from the bottle twice a day as their mother's don't have a lot of milk but I also have three who are entirely dependent on the bottle. One is a tiny triplet whose mother is very thin and hasn't got any milk, one was a triplet who was fostered on to an ewe successfully from the ewe’s point of view, but the lamb refuses to drink from her! The lamb had been very poorly for a couple of days and spent time under the heat lamp being bottle-fed and she is totally fixated on me. After she escaped from the pen to find me for the third time that morning, I gave up, let her foster mum go and put the lamb on the bottle.

And then there is Churchill!

Churchill is a lamb with a developmental deformity that prevented his face from fully forming. As a result, he has a short nose and a slightly lop-sided face and looks like a bulldog. I didn't expect him to live but gave him a chance by putting him in the warming box and feeding him and he is now 11 days old and is incredibly robust. Unfortunately, as time has gone it on it is clear that he also has some sort of mental development problem and at this stage I am not sure whether he will be safe out in the field as he tends to walk in straight lines, following the line of the wall and will get stuck in a corner where he will just stand, sucking his tongue as if he was sucking from a bottle teat, until someone comes to his rescue.

He is also very difficult to feed as he gets so excited that he rears up on his hind legs, goes rigid and clamps his mouth shut. The only thing that gets him to relax is to get the bottle teat in his mouth but getting him to relax so you can open his mouth is really hard. I suspect the solution for Churchill will be to get the automatic lamb feeder set up (a plastic tub with teats around the sides that is kept topped up with milk for multiple lambs to feed from) so he can go and suck when he needs to. The nice thing though is that he has teamed up with the tiny triplet with the skinny Mum so he has a friend and they can often be seen curled up asleep together. He has also just started to “play tag” with the other lambs and run about in the barn so I am hopeful that he will have some sort of normal development and will have a good quality of life for however long that may be.

The weather has been glorious and fantastic for getting lambs turned out but we really need rain to push on the grass. We actually had a bit today which got me soaked as I was out moving the horses electric fence at the time but as far as the ground goes, it is still bone dry and I'm afraid it won't have done much good. On the other hand, the smell of damp grass, dandelion flowers, distant bluebells and warm damp soil is really wonderful so if it hasn't been much good for the crops, it is at least good for the soul!

Don’t forget it’s open house from 2 till 4pm on Easter Saturday if you would like to drop in to see the lambing. Lamb feeding is around 3pm and there should be enough lambs to go round. Hope to see you then!