News of the thousands of sheep that were lost in last week's snow drifts has given us an insight into sheep farming. Warnings were issued several days ahead but the severity of the storms must have taken farmers by surprise. That livestock were left outside shows how farmers expect sheep to withstand severe conditions.
Sheep are usually regarded as the most free-ranging of all farm animals. But they are not always free and there is much about their rearing that, like their counterparts in factory farms, is unnatural.
For instance note the distinction between 'Easter' and 'Spring lamb'. Spring lamb comes from lambs that are born in the spring. But lambs for the Easter market are born in winter, between November and February, to be ready for the 'New Season' market when prices are traditionally high.
But winter is the worst time for lambs to be born, especially when the weather is cold and wet, let alone in this year's excessively harsh conditions. Even in a normal year 10 - 15% of the UK's lambs die prematurely. Outside-born lambs are most likely to die from exposure, starvation and predation. But lambs born and raised inside are at risk of a raft of viral and bacterial infections. Navel, joint and skin infections abound. Pneumonia is common. Parasitic worms build up in bedding and cause gut infections. The list is long and when there are too few farm workers to look after them neglect is another cause of suffering.
Ewes now give birth to 2 or 3 lambs although the natural number is one and ewes only have two teats. With multiple births have come an increase in pregnancy complications, particularly when lambs are too big and ewes too small. Every year, in the UK, about 400,000 (2-4%) ewes die around the time of giving birth.
To provide enough milk for twins and triplets ewes' udders are now so abnormally engorged that they are forced to walk with their back legs splayed. Such prodigious milk production also causes 12% of breeding ewes to develop mastitis: an extremely painful bacterial infection, the udder becomes swollen, hot, lumpy and distended. Left untreated gangrene can develop and whole parts of the udder can slough off. The next stage is septicaemia and death.
Genetic selection has produced the double-muscled Beltex. Favoured for its high value carcase this breed is another welfare casualty. Disturbingly freakish to look at with dog-like faces their double-muscled hindquarters hamper their agility and cause them to walk in a distinctly clumsy manner. They are also prone to respiratory problems that cause them to breathe in rasping gasps.
Another detriment to welfare - though very convenient for the sheep farmer - is 'synchronised lambing'. Ewes in a flock are treated with hormones so they all come into season at the same time and can be artificially inseminated (AI) on the same day. For this they are put on a rack and the semen is passed through a catheter into the cervix, or directly into the womb. Unless this is done with consummate skill it will cause extreme pain. Defra's recommendations advise that any person using AI should be trained and competent. But these are guidelines and not laid down in law.
Also notably lacking in welfare is 'accelerated lambing'. Again, thanks to AI, 3 lamb 'crops' can be produced in 2 years - and sometimes even 2 in one year - thus maximising lamb production and profitability. But ewes become infertile and need to be replaced even more frequently than the 5 or 6 year lifespan of those in less intensive systems.
'Easter' or 'New Season' lambs are reared in a way that is in stark contrast to those for the 'Spring lamb' market. Spring lambs are born around mid-May when the risk of bad weather has passed and they will have been out all summer on pastures or on mountain sides. The meat will have been flavoured by a variety of grasses and meadow herbs. Exercise will have honed muscles and perfected the texture.
If your Easter, New Season, lamb is disappointing - pale in colour, flavourless and tough - that will be because the lamb was born out of season; reared in a shed; its growth forced by an unnatural diet of supplementary feeds that include grains, cotton seed, poultry litter and soybean hulls; and will have had scarcely any exercise.
It seems that sheep farming has much in common with factory farming where animals are forced to live unnatural lives; are bred to suit the system; have become so abnormal that they are unable to lead natural lives; and where compassion is wanting.