Storm Emma: a challenge for lambing farmers

‘There will be a lot of hungry foxes out there . . . we are working round the clock’

Michael Kelly feeding ewes and newborn lambs in the snow on Thursday at his farm in Ardrahan, Co Galway. Photograph: Micheal Kelly.

Michael Kelly feeding ewes and newborn lambs in the snow on Thursday at his farm in Ardrahan, Co Galway. Photograph: Micheal Kelly.

 

Digging sheep out of snowdrifts is a serious challenge. But when there are newborn lambs involved, it is enough to keep any farmer awake at night.

“So we are thinking of those less fortunate than us,” said Michael Kelly, who has been lambing and calving on his Ardrahan in south Galway farm for the past fortnight.

“We are lucky so far here in that it has been a light smattering of snow [on Thursday], and so I am able to let them out into the fields, but we are keeping an eye on conditions all the time, and taking haylage [livestock feed] out.”

However, haylage is not going to feed every animal that makes its way on to Kelly’s land, and this can be a source of considerable stress.

“There will be a lot of hungry foxes out there, so it is round the clock at the moment with me and my two sons, and we are working 6am to 1am,” he said. “Fortunately, we have a lot more machinery now than back in that big snow in 1982 which I remember well, when some farmers didn’t even have central heating.”

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Farmers depend on having adequate cubicles in sheds for ewes and newborn lambs for the first 24 to 72 hours, to ensure “mothering up” goes smoothly, he explained.

“If you don’t have enough cubicles, the mothering up gets quite chaotic, with the lambs looking for the wrong parent,” he says. “You’d hope to be able to let them out as soon as conditions allow, as it is healthier for them, but some sheep farmers may be caught now with this weather.”

Freezing pipes is one of the biggest concerns for farmers, particularly on higher ground, said Colm O’Donnell, president of the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers’ Association (INHFA).

Mr O’Donnell, whose farm in the Ox Mountains in Co Sligo is at a height of more than 300 metres, said a neighbour was forced to let his animals out of sheds two days ago due to a frozen water supply.

“He had to let the cattle out to have a drink, and they tend to be very frisky when they have been in the sheds and run blind,”he said. “That can be dangerous for both animal and farmer.”

Snow in the Ox Mountains had been a “lot worse” earlier this winter, Mr O’Donnell said, and lambing on his farm does not start till April 10th.

“I have the cattle in sheds, but the sheep are out and I tend not to feed them, because they know where to find the best shelter and can forage for food,” he explained.

“Sheep tend to be very clever, and very adaptable, and will have been aware of this weather change for some time . . . If you go out and feed them, you are bringing them to a point they might return to next day, when they get too exposed.”