I wrote last Wednesday about McKinley, the ewe who lost the skin and wool on her rump due to unknown causes. As shepherdess of our flock, it’s up to me to keep our flock healthy and safe, and I had obviously failed McKinley. Even worse, I had no idea how this had happened. Why had McKinley lost such a large area of skin? How long ago had it happened? Could it have been prevented?
When something bad happens to the flock, I always spend time afterwards trying to learn from the experience. If I can walk away from the crisis as a better shepherdess, then the bad situation had some good purpose. Over these past days, I’ve been searching for some takeaway that will make me a better caregiver of our flock.
I do know exactly when McKinley’s problem arose. When we weaned the last group of lambs (including McKinley’s triplets) on Saturday, May 28th, we brought the entire group of lambs and the few ewes still with them into the Sheep Barn, where we had sheared the rams the previous weekend. We changed coats on a number of the group and then pulled the remaining ewes out of the group and into the adjacent pasture. With the help of my dog, Coda, I led the ten ewes up to the old Storage Barn, where they would spend about ten days as their milk dried up.
Because weaning is generally harder on the ewes than on their lambs, I keep a close eye on the group. When I checked them that evening, gave them water, and looked them over, I noticed nothing unusual. The next morning, the coat over McKinley’s rump was wet — which had me worried. I caught her and took a closer look, fully expecting to find fly strike under the wet portion. As I lifted the coat, I steeled myself against the expected view of squirming maggots but found nothing amiss. The wool and coat were wet over a fairly large area of her rump, but the skin seemed fine. I released her back into the group and gave them their carefully measured hay for the day, refilling the water before I left.
When I checked the group later that evening, McKinley’s rump was still wet, and I was again convinced that I would find fly strike upon closer inspection. Once again, there were no maggots and no discernible odor of fly strike. I teased McKinley about sleeping too close to the water tub. Yet in the back of my mind, I was puzzled. If she had gotten wet from the tub, it should be drying occasionally. How was it staying so wet? There had been no rain, and even a roof leak wouldn’t reach them through all of the hay in the loft. If this was something contagious, the other nine ewes housed in such close quarters would have gotten it — yet only McKinley was wet. I couldn’t figure out what was happening!
I repeated this scenario for a total of five welfare checks. For two-and-a-half days, McKinley’s coat was wet at the rump, and then on the evening of the third day, it began to dry. This was equally puzzling since I couldn’t figure out what had caused it in the first place. On the fifth day, I gave the girls more space, and on the tenth day — with their milk now dried up and their bags small and soft — I released them to the rest of the flock. It was time to rebuild their bodies over the summer.
I now suspect that the moisture I saw was serum coming from McKinley’s body and wicking up through the wool. Something toxic likely burned her skin in that area, but how did she get into something so toxic? I think it had to do with shearing the weekend before. When we ran the sheep into the barn a week later, there was a stain on the concrete floor from the previous weekend. I have no idea what it was (conversations with the shearer are yet to come), but because the sheep would only be in that barn for mere hours, we didn’t cover it as we normally do — instead we simply dropped a few flakes of straw in the area, figuring the sheep would spread it for us.
I don’t know for sure what happened, but it’s possible that McKinley went to lie down on that spot or perhaps slipped on the smooth concrete as she ran in the pen and fell on that spot. I remember that we changed her coat because hers was riding up at the rump, essentially leaving her backside exposed in the area that later peeled. When I changed the coat that day, I inadvertently covered wool that likely had some contaminant on it, allowing it to “cook” under the cover.
In the end, there is really no way to know exactly what happened to McKinley — but she is doing well now, albeit with a bare bum. I know that in the future I will eye every unknown floor stain in the area that the sheep access. I have once again been reminded that a shepherdess just cannot be too careful.