Thursday, 25 September 2014

Struck Down

A smallholder's life is not all sunshine, bountiful produce and skipping gaily through meadows (that's just on a Tuesday). If you keep animals it's your responsibility to keep them healthy. When you lack Dr Dolittle's conversational skills, keeping animals healthy can sometimes be a struggle, and if we're talking cats and pills, pigs and needles or sheep and anything, that struggle can quickly escalate into a battle of both wills and bodies.

As any pet owner knows, doling out fistfuls of cash for worming pills, flea treatments and annual booster injections is the price you pay for affection, loyalty and companionship (and in the case of two out of our three cats all are grudgingly given, accompanied by the swipe of a claw-laden paw or not on offer in the first place). Add chickens, pigs and sheep in to the mix and the cash (yours for them) increases while the affection (theirs for you) decreases. Actually, to be fair, in our experience pigs are the least troublesome animal health-wise as long as they're fed and watered and have company and plenty of rooting and playing space. Understandably, given the size and weight of a healthy 6 month old sow, if play or food envy gets overly boisterous there can be injuries. This is usually nothing more harmful than a scratched ear, but having once been called upon to administer an anti-inflammatory injection I can confirm that the skin of a porcine posterior is not easily pierced.

In contrast, when caring for chickens you can find yourself engaged in some rather strange and sometimes icky tasks - dripping drops in a pus oozing eye, wiping blocked snotty nostrils, clipping solidified poo from bottom feathers, gently massaging a swollen balloon like abdomen, dabbing soothing cream on pecked parts, providing warm baths and blow drys (I can tell by the low level cluck, cluck, clucking in my ear that they LOVE a trip to the hen salon).

Which brings us to sheep.

I love my ewes. I know their individual characters. I recognise their faces. I've looked deep into Babette's eyes and seen myself reflected back. Given the effort that goes into keeping the girls tickety-boo I choose to take the head butts, stamping and occasional hoof to the back of the leg as signs of affection and gratitude. Recent events, however, have made me see the seemingly endless folding, tipping, trimming, dagging, fluking and dosing as enjoyable tasks, tasks I would gladly repeat ad infinitum if someone, anyone, would promise that we would never ever have to deal with fly strike again. I thought "tax returns" were the scariest two words in my life, but not any more. The "fly" is the blow fly. The strike is its offspring hatching out in moist, warm wool and then munching their way into the flesh of your sheep. Hideous, Horrific. Horrendous. And other "h" words that fail to convey quite how awful fly strike is. Try this instead: "Eggs hatch within 24 hours and first stage larvae penetrate the skin using their hook like mouthparts and secrete enzymes which liquefy and digest the tissue. Larvae are very active and cause further skin and muscle liquefaction with secondary bacterial infection as they develop". Have I put you off your food yet? Don't worry, there are no photos to accompany this. Well, no "during" photos anyway.

In June we cried wolf - the signs of fly strike in Myfanwy which induced panicked calls for help turned out to be nothing more than grumpy, hot and bothered, out of sorts behaviour. So the next time we saw the same behaviour we were less quick to react. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and hindsight tells me that this is where we should have intervened. Meanwhile, without the benefit of hindsight, we let ourselves be distracted by the development of a limp. Nothing unusual, easily treated, and hiding the real problem. When the hanging back from the flock, lurking in the shed and back nibbling started, Rhos and Lulu were rounded up for inspection. Suspecting fly strike, but never having seen fly strike before, I expected to see maggots in the fleece. No maggots. Lots of crusty scabby skin, but no maggots on the back of either lamb. So not fly strike then. With only three days to go until the one way trip to the abattoir, an insecticide dosing was not an option. A day later and the situation hasn't improved. Both lambs were reluctant to move, with Rhos only dragging himself to his feet to run when approached. Knowing that sheep have a blind spot immediately behind them, I even got down on all fours to crawl up behind him and inspect his back, but still failed to see any sign of writhing maggots in the fleece. Mystified, we called for help. Something was desperately wrong but we didn't know what or how to treat it.

Help arrived the next day, with his dog (a proper working one not our fake one). Being at work all I could do was wait for the phone to ring with news and moan and wail at anyone who would listen. I didn't have to wait too long. The diagnosis was in, fly strike confirmed, Rhos in a bad way, another day's delay and that would probably have been his last. We'd been looking in the wrong place, the fly strike was on the flanks, down to the belly, great handfuls of maggot riddled fleece falling away exposing bloody eaten flesh. Oh the guilt, the "why didn't we do x when we saw y" self-recriminations. Liberal spraying with huge doses of insecticide, isolation from the flock, the bleating and wailing, followed by daily, then every other day, then weekly inspections for re-strike, lifting off scabbed dead skin, smearing with protective and anti-septic cream. For weeks Rhos was blue with insecticide and yellow with cream, a brightly coloured sorry looking specimen, but alive. And here he is now .....

... still a little yellow and crusty at the rear, but I'm pretty sure there's a smile back on his face. The fleece is gradually growing back, the first soft downy regrowth masked the track marks left by the maggots. Lulu was never as bad, the fly strike was caught early. But neither will be heading for the abattoir any time soon, if at all. Any "real" farmer would laugh, any "real" farmer would know this isn't a financially viable way to run a smallholding, but there's something about bringing an animal back from the brink of death that makes it harder to then send it to its death. Nonsensical. Soft-hearted. Sign of a g guilty conscience. But one thing's for sure, we never want any of our flock to suffer fly strike ever again.