During lambing season, most farmers expect a percentage of lamb deaths but sheep producers in the Ballarat area say their biggest headache this season has been foxes.
Banongill general manager John Sheehan says athough the winter had been milder than usual and “on the dry side” which is favourable for lambing, he has been surprised by the numbers of foxes.
“We’ve had a couple of fox drives and we’re taking steps to manage the foxes, but it’s a problem.”
He said they would not really know how many lambs they’d lost until the mobs were brought in for marking in the next few weeks.
Burrumbeet grazier Alan McCartney has just finished his lambing season with 1200 first-cross ewes. He said he doesn’t scan his ewes [a tool used to measure if ewes are pregnant] so it is hard to know the exact percentage rates of births versus deaths, but he estimates between 10 to 20 per cent in lamb losses.
“It could be more,” he said. “It’s been quite cold, so between the foxes and the weather, we’ve probably lost quite a few.”
Mr McCartney said, like other farmers, they’d had shooters around to try and control the foxes, and that had produced some of the highest counts he’d seen.
Although he says it is only his own theory, Mr McCartney believes the increased numbers of foxes has a lot to do with the numbers of farmers getting out of livestock and turning to cropping.
“Because of the dry, a lot of farmers are getting out of sheep and turning to cropping, so I don’t think people are as vigilant … they aren’t as worried about the foxes because there’s not the sheep numbers.”
Pyrenees grazier Robert Muller’s lambing season is almost finished, with good results from 1000 crossbred and 1200 merino ewes. He said they had certainly lost a percentage of lambs.
“Around 10 per cent, probably higher. It’s hard to know accurately how many, especially if there’s twins and triplets.
“My priority is the ewes and you have to monitor them; you do what you can for the lambs but sometimes if you meddle, you do more harm than good.”
Mr Muller said he and his family had had many years of bottle feeding and caring for newborn lambs at the property.
Mr Muller said there were many factors causing lamb deaths, including birth complications from oversized lambs, and weakened sheep who couldn’t stand or feed their lambs.
“We’ve had frosts, and frosts will kill newborns, but there hasn’t been the extended heavy rain like some years (when lambs are born in wet and windy conditions, they get cold and are often too weak to get up) and we’ve had foxes and crows,” Mr Muller said.
He said although they didn’t have the fox numbers of other areas, it was enough to be a concern.
“They (the foxes) don’t even eat the lambs, they just bite them and leave them to die, and the crows are worse. A sheep or lamb gets weakened and down and they take their eye out, then the animal gets blood poisoning.”
Mr Muller said his son’s decision to start feeding early to keep the ewes in good condition pre-lambing had helped.
“Leading up to lambing the sheep’s stomach capacity is reduced, so if you feed them early on, they’ve got the reserves to carry them through,” he said.
Research has shown the amount of feed available at lambing also has a significant effect on maternal behaviour.
Dr Graeme Martin, from the University of Western Australia, said if there’s enough feed the ewe won’t go looking for food and abandon her lamb. He said this is important because she only has about 2-4 hours after lambing to bond with the lamb before her hormones change and she is repelled by the lamb's smell. Hence, extended birth times, leaving the lamb to feed or other factors that scare her away, can result in abandoned lambs.
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