Pregnancy diagnosis in sheep

When I started talking about going back to university one of my friends from school got in touch and asked if I wanted to do some “work experience” on his dad’s farm. I was very grateful for the suggestion and even more so when we went along to the farm and his family turned out to be lovely, friendly people and willing to take me on during lambing!

I’ve booked my time off work and agreed to stay with my family in the next village. However their lambing won’t start until late March/early April, which seemed a long way off. So when they called me up and said they were doing pregnancy diagnosis on some of the sheep this weekend I jumped at the chance to go and start learning about sheep farming and try and make myself useful.

The first sign of my utter lack of sheep knowledge was that I don’t know my Swaledales from my Badger Faces or my Lleyn (“Clin”, I think) from my Blackface (Scottish, Leicester or otherwise). I can just about recognise a Texel but I’d never heard of a Derbyshire Gritstone before yesterday and I’m not sure I could pick it out again. And beyond the names, the characteristics of the breeds were a mystery to me – the Dorset horn being the only sheep which will breed at any time of year, for example. Luckily the National Sheep Association has a lot of information on their website which I have been trying to commit to memory.

When I arrived on Saturday a mixed group of sheep were in the barn and the first task was to separate the ones we wanted to scan. They went through a race and depending on the coloured spray on their backs they were sent left into the yard or right into another pen via a crush. Most of the sheep were scanned in January but the ones which had seemed barren then (with black spray) and the ones which were with the tup later (with green marks) were being checked.

Next we let all the sheep from the pen back into the barn and kept them down one end with hurdles. The ultrasound was done by the same man who does sheering locally. He brought the machine and a special home-made chair and sat down by the crush. About six at a time we moved the sheep into the race and I had the job of standing between the waiting sheep and the one having the ultrasound, sending another one down when the one before was let out via the crush. I had a few bad moments where multiple sheep seemed to want ultrasounds at once and I had to yell “Watch out!”, or when none of them wanted to come forwards at all, but I really enjoyed myself. I think my best moment was stopping a Texel cross ewe jumping in on another ewe’s scan by sort of sitting on her. She responded quite well and kept still until it was her turn and I stood up.

The job was over quite quickly and then there was just a Swaledale ewe who’d jumped out of the pen and escaped into the barn. She herded into the race easily but jumped right out again and had to be held by stronger people than me to be scanned. Now all the sheep were back out in the yard, marked black for barren or orange for late lambs. I was very impressed with the specific dates the ultrasound man gave for lambing but we will have to wait and see if they come true! None of us could tell what he was seeing on that little screen so this is another mystery which will have to be exposed once I get to vet school.

I didn’t really want to leave so stayed to prepare some feed for the next day and glean whatever information I could about the poultry and what to expect in April. I think lambing will be much harder work but I’m still looking forwards to it very much! Until then I’ll try and go back if I get any opportunity to and keep trying to learn the differences between all these sorts of sheep!





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