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The popular image of sheep in their contented element is a lie, reports Andrew Tyler in an investigation into the inhumane practises of the British sheep industry.
There were more than 50 orphan lambs on sale at Leicestershire's Melton Mowbray market-the day we called, a freezing, rain-lashed February morning. They were just a few days old, many with their dried umbilical cords still dangling at their bellies. Some were true orphans, their mothers having died durIng delivery. The rest were the least promising specimens of triplet births: a ewe can only feed two lambs from her two teats, and so one becomes surplus.
The auctioneers held them aloft, one or two at a time, the going price usually no more than 10 Pounds. Buyers and sellers pushed against the metal pens.Some reached over the bars and prodded the shivering merchandise.
Janet Taylor, who runs a farm animal sanctuary a two hour drive away in Bromsgrove, West Midlands, made two purchases; a sickly, bewildered female with swollen eyelids and a highly infectious viral condition known as orf that had inflamed her tongue and gums and caused her mouth to break out in blisters; and a bright but tiny male who would be the female's companion.
From Melton we went straight to a vet in Janet's home town. She confirmed the diagnoses, addressing the problem of the swollen eyes with several injections directly into the lids. Astonishingly, she said that farmers themselves often performed this delicate procedure. Blood trickled down the lamb s cheeks as she struggled in the vet's arms. The complaint, known as entropion, results in the eyelashes turning inwards and scratching the surface of the eye. This had already caused ulceration and if untreated, would lead to blindness.
The vet agreed to provide a letter confirming the animal's condition. The public bartering of baby lambs is a primitive enough enterprise. That some of those on sale should be in such dismal condition is, if the law has any meaning, a criminal offence.
The two youngsters would spend the next several weeks in Janet Taylor's house, being bottle fed and nursed - until they were confident enough to join the 160 other rescued sheep housed in the sanctuary's four and a half acres and in several nearby rented fields.
The individual stories of these 160 amounted to an indictment of the sheep trade as a whole, a business imagined by the general public to be free of the intensification and exploitation that beset the rearing of poultry and pigs: gambolling lambs and dreamy- - eyed ewes on rolling fields being the pervasive images. The cliche is most easily dismembered by reciting a single, scandalous industry statistic: every year four million lambs die  - from disease; malnutrition and exposure - in their first few days. This is one in five of the total born.
Ewes are designed to carry one lamb only, delivering it - in the Northern hemisphere - in late March or April when the weather cheers up. Through selective breeding, intensive feeding and the use of drugs and hormonal implants, twins are now a standard feature, with triplets becoming more common. And, instead of April lambing, a sizeable proportion of the lowland 'crop' is produced from December onwards, the aim being to get a jump on the competition. The sheds they are born in are often damp, crowded and carpeted with faeces and urine. Contagious foot rot and a potentially fatal gut infection in the lamb called watery mouth are among the endemic conditions. Within days of their birth, in areas such as Devon, Kent and Sussex, the surviving youngsters are turned out to face the rain and the snow.
Hill farmers generally lamb later, often outdoors, and without resort to such heavy chemical manipulation. But it's in these upland areas that lamb mortality is highest, thanks to a subsidy system which has encouraged a huge increase in sheep numbers but without a - corresponding increase in either the land available for them to graze on or shepherds to attend to their basic needs. The shepherd-to-sheep ratio has fallen dramatically in recent years, as has government support for basic training in sheep husbandry. The result is widespread malnutrition - so often fatal during lambing time.
The rush to intensify
Like other branches of livestock farming, the sheep industry has allowed itself to be sucked into a self-defeating spiral, in which more traditional farming methods have been abandoned for the short term allure of intensification. As well as subsidy support, the application of science and technology has allowed a massive increase in the size of the national flock - from nearly 34 million to 44 million animals in the decade up to 1992. But the farmers now find themselves shackled to the druggists, the vets, the manufacturers of housing and penning systems and the suppliers of compound feeds. And they find that the more lambs they produce, the less each lamb is worth: a law of the marketplace.
This means they must push their animals even harder so that they can stand still financially. The health of the British sheep flock is declining accordingly. The drive is also on to get an additional, third 'crop' of lambs from the ewe every two years. And we are seeing the start of permanent indoor lambing - the equivalent of intensive pig rearing - especially with the southern European market in mind and their taste or infant lamb flesh.
Dennis Pritchard and his wife Olive farm 137.5 acres in Welsh hill country in the Brecon Beacons. By the standards of the trade, Pritchard is a top-notch practitioner. Forty years in the business, a former instructor of new-generation shepherds, his farm was selected as a model operation for a 1993 teaching seminar organised by the Royal Agricultural College and English Nature.
The problems, he says, started with the rush to intensification after the Second World War; and they have been accelerating ever since. Forty years ago, a farm like his own would have kept 150 ewes and 50 young 'replacement' breeders - enough to be self-sufficient. Pritchard today has 400 ewes and 100 replacements but despite "at least 50 per cent of our income coming courtesy of the taxpayer", he still finds. himself "living on a knife's edge." Intensive sheep farming in the hills, he says, means keeping more animals to the acre. And that's the explanation for the high mortality: "too many sheep".
"I do see a crash in the trade", says Pritchard. "l think we'll have so many sheep that we won't be able to sell them".
The big myth
The penalties paid by the sheep themselves are plainly evident to anyone stepping beyond the cozy tableau visible from a car window. The orphan Iamb sales at Melton Mowbray aside, during travels in January and February around Devon, Sussex, Kent, the West Midlands and Mid Wales, Animal Aid investigators found numerous examples of neglect and incompetence: a dead ewe left to rot in a field near Bideford; a heavily pregnant Welsh ewe collapsing from malnutrition; a lamb, probably two days old and with what looked like a broken leg, bleating for his mother in a Devon barn; another lamb, too weak to suckle, dying in an Essex show farm; baby lambs shivering in the Kent snow, too feeble to move; the 'stocks' at that same Essex show farm in which reluctant ewes are held for days by their necks until they accept another animal's triplet or orphaned Iamb on their teat; the ewes in a Kent agricultural college obliged to give birth before several hundred members of the paying public; and countless examples of crippled animals, young and old, some forced to graze on their stomachs because their feet were too rotten and painful to stand on.
Getting the breeding stock to produce more and meatier lambs all year round, with no additional 'input' costs, is the game plan propounded by trade bodies like the Meat and Livestock Commission. Irish researchers are experimenting with vaccinations that manipulate hormones and so reduce fat cover. And since 1991, two Scottish research institutes have been running a large-scale selective breeding project - supported by public funds - designed to see how much backfat can be bred out of the traditional Scottish mountain ewe before her ability to survive and nurse her offspring is even more seriously eroded. These animals and their equivalents in other UK upland areas are already pushed to the limit - in appalling weather, on ground that offers scant nourishment and under the 'protection' of often poorly-trained flockmasters, whose failure to provide adequate supplementary feed is much of the reason for the extraordinary mortality rate.
Procreation: Breeding machines
Unmolested, the ewe will be biologically receptive to the ram each November/December and, following a five month pregnancy, deliver in the spring. Through the use of various drugs she is now being manipulated into bearing three 'crops' every two years - one of them as early as December. The hormone melatonin, approved by the Ministry of Agriculture in 1991 for use in sheep, fools the ewe into thinking autumn is on the way, making her cycle about six weeks early. To make sure all the lambs emerge at once, a sponge containing the birth-pill drug progesterone is thrust up the animal's vagina. When it is removed, 12 days later, there is a rush of estrogen, which causes the ewe's eggs to drop, ready for fertilization. More chemical trickery comes with the use of PMSG, a hormone extracted from pregnant mares, which maintains or increases the ewe's ovulation rate. Thus primed, she will be 'serviced' by the ram or, increasingly, subjected to artificial insemination (AI), an especially invasive procedure for ewes. Even more intrusive is a new form of AI, requiring surgical intervention, whereby the ewe is upended on a rack and the semen inserted directly into her womb. In 1993, 20,000 such procedures were carried out. Embryo transfer takes interference in the reproductive process one stage further. Fertilised embryos are 'flushed' out of a 'quality' donor animal and inserted into a 'recipient' who acts as the breeding machine.
"You're breeding for multiple-births all the time", says the shepherd at Marsh Farm County Park in Essex, a 230 breeding-ewe operation that annually attracts some 100,000 visitors. 'That's because the price of a single lamb to the farmer is useless". This means aiming for a high percentage, not just of twins but of triplets - 70 per cent and 10 per cent respectively in the case of Marsh Farm. The 'spare' triplet must quickly be found a lactating ewe with an unused teat. If the selected adult doesn't readily accept the young interloper - frequently the case - she will be tethered by a rope, or held by the neck inside what is called an adopter box but which looks like the medieval stocks to allow the orphan free access to her milk. She will remain in this contraption for, perhaps, four or five days. The alternative is to feed the 'spare' by a tube which is threaded into its stomach via the mouth. Not a few lambs - already distraught at being separated from their mothers - are killed or injured during this process.
"Artificial feeding needs great care", says Dr Alan Long of VEGA (Vegetarian Economy Green Agriculture). "The lamb can die by drowning if the administered liquid enters the lung rather than the stomach. Some farmers are clumsy with feeders designed for calves and so injure the lamb's throat".
Tube feeding, once an emergency measure, is now standard practise. There is a flourishing trade in substitute milk products, some cheaper versions of which are derived from dairy cows, even though these can lead to anaemia and bacterial infection in the young lamb.
"The health of the British sheep flock is declining", according to a leading veterinary expert. "This is true for diseases caused by viruses, bacteria and ecto (skin) parasites."
Commercial sheep, says Kate Hovers, a hands-on working vet in Llandovrey, Wales "have a fantastic variety of diseases... They need a hell of a lot doing to them".
A range of 'preventive' drugs are injected, poured down the throat or applied through whole body immersion of the entire flock for a range of external and internal parasites. A percentage of animals also fall prey to viral diseases, scrapie, mastitis, rotting teeth, fallen womb (prolapse) lameness and blindness. Resistance is building to several of these drugs, so that they now have no impact. And the Farm Animal Welfare Council is concerned that 'there are many cases of incorrect and inappropriate treatments' of what are often powerful and toxic compounds. Our own investigations show that needles and syringes are rarely cleaned or replaced, even after use on dozens or perhaps hundreds of animals. This leads to abscesses and other complications.
The drive for multiple births is an important cause of increased disease and higher lamb and ewe mortality. Pregnancy toxaemia (or 'twin lamb disease') afflicts the mother towards the end of her pregnancy when her overloaded womb presses on her gut making it difficult to consume the volume of feed she needs to produce and then adequately feed two, three or more offspring. If the newborn fail to get a good supply of disease fighting colostrum they are highly susceptible to dysentery and a bacterial infection called watery mouth (or rattle belly), whose symptoms are drooling, distended stomach and 'a splashing sound if the lamb is gently shaken' Ultimately, hypothermia and death result.
With outdoor lambing, it is difficult enough for the ewe to lick dry and feed the newborn on a breezeless spring day. If she's in high country and the weather is bad, and if a second lamb emerges before the first is tended to, the problems are almost insurmountable - especially, as is often the case, if she has been inadequately fed. "When the lamb is wet the battle for survival is almost lost before it has started," notes Leslie Stubbings, the sheep specialist with ADAS, the national agricultural advisory service.
Sheep dipping is directed against two devastating conditions known as scab and blowflies. Until July 1992, dipping was compulsory and usually undertaken with a solution containing organophosphate pesticides (OP). Following widespread reports of farmers suffering serious dipping-related illnesses, the Ministry of Agriculture required that anyone using the OPs must first obtain a certificate of competence. The negative impact of dip ping on sheep themselves is rarely discussed, even though the animals are totally immersed in the toxic solution, with their heads held under with a broom or crook. Welsh farmer's wife, Alice Pritchard, says she has "heard of people losing young lambs that have got underneath their ewe mother and drowned". And an October 1994 article in The Sheep Farmer (p.13) listed the 'uncontrolled nervous signs' that can result from accidental ingestion or use of the wrong concentration. These included 'excessive salivation and tears, frequent urination, vomiting, difficulty in breathing, muscle twitching developing to incoordination, paralysis, collapse and death'. Dipping is so associated with an increased risk of bacterial infection.
A 1990 report by the Nature Conservancy Council held sheep farmers largely responsible for the destruction, since 1947, of 20 per cent of the country's natural heather. Two years later, the Tweed Foundation suggested that too many sheep had destroyed the natural oak and alder vegetation in the upper reaches of many rivers. This had caused banks to collapse, streams to widen and gravel to be washed down by floods, so destroying the spawning grounds of salmon and trout.
More sheep to the acre has also meant ploughing and draining vast tracks of unspoiled land containing indigenous grasses, herbs, peat and hedgerows. Welsh shepherd Dennis Pritchard says that, on just one estate he worked on before acquiring his own farm, he helped plough up nearly one thousand acres. "It was all to feed sheep. We destroyed the habitat for countless birds and small mammals" Pritchard has refused to plough his own farm and is seeking a European Union nature conservation grant that will allow him to survive with half the number of sheep.
You see lots of dead ewes up here in the late spring", said Margaret Price. We were on common land high above Llanybydder in Dyfed. Some are hit by cars, some die from the process of lambing, when nobody's around to assist them. You also- see a lot of moribund or dead lambs. The little Welsh mountain ewe, she's expected to exist on practically nothing at all - bare turf, heather and whatever else she can forage".
It is widely recognised in the trade that old ewes, who are unfit for further breeding, are retained instead of slaughtered simply to maximize subsidy payments. Ensuring that they are fed properly is rarely a consideration. The government's Farm Animal Welfare Council believed 'a considerable number' of such animals were being sold cheap through markets as breeding stock, despite the fact that they were 'not fit to survive a further pregnancy or produce enough milk to rear a lamb'.
The road to slaughter
Some 80 per cent of the roughly 20 million UK sheep slaughtered every year pass through domestic livestock markets. Here, they are subjected to -the stresses of loading and unloading and hours of waiting - in all weathers -in tightly packed pens on stone floors that will grow slick with urine and excrement. In Banbury market Oxfordshire, we saw a farmer crossing the car park with his arms wrapped around a pregnant ewe's chest, her back legs dangling. He said her lambs were about to start coming and he was taking her to a trailer where they would be delivered: It is any offence to bring to market a ewe in such a late stage of pregnancy.In Melton Mowbray, we filmed a sheep being trampled under the hooves of other animals as they were hurriedly unloaded. From market, some sheep will go for further fattening or for slaughter in this country. "There is absolutely no way anyone can 'humanely slaughter' a young, fit animal that doesn't want to die", says Janet Taylor of the Bromegrove sanctuary. "Sheep like to herd together when there's a problem. But at the abattoir they are put into lines and the lines move up to the killing area, where they are first stunned, often ineptly with electrical tongs, before going to the knife. There's blood; lots of blood and the animal struggle from the time anyone starts to approach, but it realises it can't get free. !t's already away from its companions, in unfamiliar surroundings. It can smell the blood, then being approached by a stranger... the whole atmosphere must be like being in hell."
Andrew Tyler is Chairman of Animal Aid. This report was prepared as part of Animal Aid's campaign to end abuses in sheep husbandry. For more information about this campaign contact:
More material on animal rights you can find from the ARRS - Animal Rights Resource Site.
This article was published in New Renaissance Magazine Vol. 5, No. 2