The facts about sheep mortality on Irish farms

"No matter what people think,
foxes seldom kill and eat young lambs."
National Parks & Wildlife Service

THE PURPOSE of this section is to set out factual information about the causes of lamb and sheep mortality. For years, foxhunters have claimed that foxes are a major factor in losses that occur in sheep production. Without foxhunting, they claim, the losses caused would force the sheep farmer out of business.

Here, we present the truth behind this outdated myth. Drawing on numerous sources of information from both the Irish sheep industry and the overseas industry, it can now be confirmed that the level of lamb and sheep mortality as a result of all forms of predation is negligible.

The level of predation on sheep compared to other causes of mortality completely nullifies any claim by blood sport enthusiasts that predation on sheep justifies the continuation of hunting with hounds.

The information contained in this booklet shows that the causes and solutions to lamb and sheep mortality lie within the Irish sheep industry. Blaming the fox for the ills of the sheep industry is simply absurd and unacceptable.

The content herein should be seized upon by all who wish to defend foxes against the ignorant who wrongly regard these fascinating creatures as vermin, the cynical who exploit them for fun and the callous who make a game of their barbaric death.

Factors in Sheep and Lamb Mortality

Survey on Lamb Mortality

Graph - Predation-misadventure 5 per cent Abortion & Still-birth (40%)
Infectious Disease (20%)
Exposure & Starvation (30%)
Other (5%)
Predation & Misadventure (5%)
Source: Department of Regional Veterinary Lab, Athlone (1992)

Causes of Lamb Mortality - UK

Graph - Predation 1 per cent Disease & Malformations (16%)
Starvation/Exposure (35%)
Other (7%)
No Result (4%)
Infections (37%)
Predation (1%)
Source: Ministry of Agriculture (UK).

"The Ministry does not consider foxes to be a significant
factor in lamb mortality nationally."

Major Causes of Lamb Deaths

Graph No Result (12%)
Starvation & Exposure (28%)
Dystocia Anoxia (23%)
Infections (20%)
Other (17%)
Source: "Sheep Production, Disease and Marketing"
Department of Agriculture & Food

"Deaths, at or around birth can lead to the loss of up to 15 per cent of lambs born in lowland flocks and up to 25 per cent of lambs born in hill flocks. The main causes are outlined diagrammatically above. The diagram, based on a survey conducted by P.J. O'Dwyer (1984-85), Regional Veterinary Laboratory, Department of Agriculture and Food, Athlone, shows that 28 per cent of deaths were due to starvation and exposure, almost one quarter were due to dystocia/anoxia and one fifth were caused by infections. Other causes included accidents, predators, birth defects, etc.

"The high proportion of losses due to difficult lambing (dystocia/anoxia) confirm the necessity for correct nutrition pre-lambing, close supervision at lambing and timely intervention (veterinary surgeon or skilled shepherd) in difficult lambings.

"Starvation/exposure is the main cause of perinatal lamb deaths (accounting for 57% of losses in the first week of life). The important factors include sick ewes, exhausted ewes, lack of milk, mastitis, desertion, weak lambs after a difficult birth, under and overweight lambs and exposure to cold, wet and windy weather.

"Losses due to infections are the least important of these major categories but can cause losses of epidemic proportions in some flocks - up to 40 per cent in an E. Coli outbreak."

Extract from "Cutting Losses at Lambing" booklet (1991) published by
Teagasc - Agriculture Food Development Authority.

Estimates of average flock mortality rates and guidelines on attainable targets

Ewes Lambs
Actual % Target % Actual % Target %
Lowland Flocks 5-6 % 2 % 10-15 % 8 %
Mountain Flocks 7-10 % 5 % 20-25 % 12 %

Extract from "Cutting Losses at Lambing" booklet (1991) published by
Teagasc - Agriculture Food Development Authority.

Diseases and infections observed in the carcasses of lambs that died in the post parturient period

Carcasses examined: 315

Hepatic Hypocuprosis (< 10 ppm) 319.84
Congenital Malformation175.40
Intrauterine Growth Retardation92.86
Thyroid Hyperplasia41.27
Other Pathological Conditions257.94
No Result134.13

Source: Department of Agriculture's Regional Veterinary Laboratory, Athlone. This table is based on a survey carried out in 1984/85 and appeared in the Summary and Conclusions chapter of a thesis presented by the Veterinary Laboratory's PJ O'Dwyer to National University of Ireland in 1991.

"During the lambing season, the most common cause of lamb losses are starvation (no suck), hypothermia and disease infections."

from "Procedures for Reducing Lamb Losses" by Dr Sean Flanagan, Western Research Centre Co. Galway (extract published in "BLATAS - The Tillage Farmer") - February 1992.

"The number one killer in sheep farming is the clostridual diseases and [the treatment programme to combat the disease] should never be neglected."

Extract from Veterinary Notebook - Irish Veterinary Journal - September 1995.

"The new-born lamb has three major problems to contend with: (1) a wet coat when it is born; (2) a birth coat which provides poor insulation; and (3) a large area of skin relative to body weight, through which it can lose heat. Many lambs die of hypothermia in the first few hours of life due to exposure.

"The main challenges to the new-born lamb are concerned with nutrition, temperature and infectious disease.

"Care, supervision and management at lambing can make the vital difference in reducing lamb losses."

Extracts from "Cutting Losses at Lambing" booklet (1991) published by TEAGASC - Agriculture Food Development Authority.

"Over 70% of ewes who die from natural causes throughout the year do so around lambing time."

Tom Egan (Sheep Specialist) Teagasc Research Centre, Fermoy, Co. Cork in Farming Independent 1st February, 1994.

"It often amazes me how poorly equipped farmers are to deal with the lambing season."

Extract from article headed "Lambing the Ewe" - Irish Farmers' Journal 1998. by "Journal Vet"

"Least mortality will occur when 24-hour supervision is given and this is extremely difficult when lambing outdoors. However, unless improved hygiene and supervision goes with indoor lambing, lamb mortality may not be reduced."

Extract from "Cutting Losses at Lambing" Booklet (1985) Published by ACOT (Council for Development in Agriculture)

"The greatest cause of deaths in young lambs was due to E. Coli and rotavirus infection. Most laboratories recorded cases of navel infection and liver abscesses associated with Fusiformis necrophorus infection. This bacteria is the main cause of foot rot in adult sheep and these may be the source of infection for the lambs. Most of the deaths in young lambs were associated with indoor lambing and poor hygiene."

Extract from article in the Veterinary Notebook concerning The Veterinary Laboratory Reports on the major animal health problems the previous spring Irish Veterinary Journal - February 1995.

"In hill areas lamb mortality can be unacceptably high ranging from 15 to 20% of lambs born alive. To combat this, careful planning of disease control routines and winter nutrition are areas which require attention."

"Hill Sheep Production" - article in Waterford News & Star 23rd February 1991. By Teagasc (Irish Agriculture & Development Authority)

Viewpoints on Sheep and Lamb Mortality

"This Department does not systematically record or survey the main causes of sheep/lamb losses."

From a letter to ICABS from the Livestock Products Division of the Department of Food and Forestry (10th January 1995).

"There is no research being undertaken on predation in sheep. It would appear that fox predation is no more serious than that of the Grey Crow but factual information is lacking.

"Standards of flock management have improved significantly throughout the lowland sheep sector and lamb mortality rates are around 8-10%. In the hill sector, however, it would appear that lamb losses are higher due to the marginal environment, lack of supervision at lambing time and inadequate feeding."

From a letter to ICABS from Teagasc (27th October 1992).

"Miracle workers - Hill or mountain ewe breeds are famous for the ability to rear lambs in difficult conditions given half a chance, equally their progeny will be up and sucking within twenty minutes and will not look back. Why then are mortality rates of 25% common on hill farms.

"The answer is that hardy as they are they cannot work miracles and they do need a minimum level of protection from the elements and they need to be able to produce colostrum and milk in sufficient quantity to nourish their lambs. The vast majority of hill and mountain lambs which die, die as a direct consequence of the absence of either or both of these requirements."

Tom Egan (Sheep Specialist) Teagasc Research Centre, Fermoy, Co. Cork - Farming Independent 14th April, 1992.

"Because of bad weather the mortality rate among early lambs is running at an average of 15% with losses of one-in-three in some severe cases where producers don't have facilities to house their flocks, according to IFA (Irish Farmers Association) figures."

Extract from an article on lamb prices - Irish Press 22nd March, 1994.

"During the present severe weather conditions farmers have lost approximately 3% of their new-born lambs. This represents 6,300 casualties or a net loss to the industry of £220,000, valuing these lambs at £35 per head as the price for mature lambs," said Mr. Eamonn O'Rourke, Chairman of the ICMSA Sheep Committee. Mr. O'Rourke said that the increase in the lamb mortality rate above normal levels, is due to the exceptionally cold and wet condition we are experiencing during the present early lambing season.

"In many cases farmers have no shelter for lambs and therefore are totally at the mercy of weather conditions. Due to the severe restrictions in our tax system, evidenced by the removal of the free depreciation allowance and the unprecedented fall in farm incomes this year, farmers in general are not in a position to build houses for stock."

From an article headed "Three Per Cent Of Lambs Die". (1st February, 1990).

"A significant reduction in the mortality rate of lambs during the early stages of life should be the first target of producers to increase profitability. There is a 10 per cent increase in yield to be obtained by reducing the current losses of up to 15% which continue to occur on many farms. Teagasc research has shown that it is possible to reduce mortality during the first twenty-four hours by up to 70% by a number of basic management changes on the farm, which should receive serious consideration by producers who want to improve their margins.

"The first twenty-four hours in the life of the lamb is critical and a lot of producers do not pay enough attention', says Gerry Scully, Chief Sheep Advisor, Teagasc. Teagasc studies on reducing the high mortality on some farms shows that low energy level of the lamb, and the failure to get sufficient colostrum during the critical twenty-four hours is critical as one of the biggest factors in lamb mortality.

"‘It is a fact that 75% of all the ewes that die prematurely die at around lambing time and 75% of the lamb mortality also occurs around lambing as well', says Gerry Scully. ‘Lamb mortality can be running at any thing up to 15% on many farms. We would say in the normal course of events it would be difficult to bring it below 8% but that is the figure we would like to see producers aiming for.'"

From an article headed "Lambs - First 24 Hours Critical". Farm Exam - 29th January, 1998

"There are many factors that can affect the survival rate of lambs although one common element affecting a large proportion of the lamb mortality in this country has to do with the adequacy of ewe nutrition, especially in the latter stages of pregnancy."

Extract from an Article headed "Steps To Reducing Lamb Mortality" by Frank Crosby, UCD Lyons Estate. Farming Independent 14th March, 1995.

"The question of predation on lambs and sheep is a knottier problem. I never met a hunter or farmer who knew of foxes killing adult sheep and, in fact, never came across any evidence of it at all. As farmers give Reynard a bad name, if there was any hint of such predation, it would hardly be kept secret."

Extract from "An Irish Beast Book" (1984 - revised edition) by James Fairley, Irish Zoologist.

"A great deal many allegations of lamb killing are based on insufficient or even non- existent evidence. When interviewing farmers I found that in some cases, a dead, unwounded animal or the mere disappearance of a lamb were attributed to the work of the fox.

"Unfortunately, actual attacks are rarely seen. As will be shown from the analyses of stomach contents, foxes will eat ovine carrion and, as they are fond of garbage from dustbins and refuse tips, it would be surprising if dead lambs and afterbirths were ignored.

"As dead lambs are not normally burned or buried in Ulster, lambing fields are frequently a good place for an opportunist like the fox to scrounge a meal. Remains at earths cannot, therefore, be taken as corroboration of killing, and neither can bodies with marks of feeding. To be certain a post-mortem must be undertaken to determine the cause of death."

Extract from "An Irish Beast Book" (1984/revised edition) by James Fairley, Irish Zoologist.

"Mountain Sheep - Lambing is in full swing in hill and mountain areas at present. Weather conditions are, paradoxically, worse than they were in January for early lambing flocks and considerable effort is required to keep losses at an acceptable level. The fact that the bulk of the hill sheep farmers' incomes now arrive as a 'cheque in the post' should not be allowed to lessen the commitment to produce as many lambs as possible."

Tom Egan (Sheep Specialist) Teagasc Research Centre, Fermoy, Co. Cork. Farming Independent 14th April, 1992.

"No matter what people think, [foxes] seldom kill and eat young lambs."

"Heritage Highlights", National Parks & Wildlife Service educational material.

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