Mid-March 2018 saw temperatures plummet into the freezing zone again, as a second fall of snow descended onto the district and much of southern England. The snow shrouded landscape looks magical in winter, but snow and freezing cold bring misery to wildlife and farm animals alike: so we must not allow ourselves to pretend, either in pretty photographs, or in our own imaginings, that all is comfort and happiness in the fields. Every year in Britain, around 4 million lambs die at this time of year (1), mostly through stillbirth and illness of one sort or another, but hypothermia from exposure is another major factor killing about 1 million annually. This is generally a more serious issue on exposed upland farms in the north than in the lowlands of the south, but in extreme weather exposed southern lambs are vulnerable too.
In the field, the proven methods of prevention of hypothermia in ewes and lambs are increased calorie intake, the provision of fresh water, and some kind of open shelter, like an open barn or an enclosure of straw bales. Animals are at risk in sub-zero temperatures if these measures are not provided, but they can endure surprisingly cold weather if they are.
In the modern age of industrial farming it is commercially beneficial to get lambs born and out to the fields as early as possible in the year in order to feed our meat markets’ insatiable demand for early lamb. In the old days lambing was geared for later in the season and in adverse weather conditions vulnerable animals might have been held for longer within the shelter of the lambing barns, but that in itself can be a cause of illness in sheep. The thick woolly coats that adult sheep carry in winter can cause them to overheat in poorly ventilated barns and disease spreads rapidly in confined, overcrowded spaces.
Most farmers do their best to maintain a healthy flock, it’s not in their own interests to lose animals to early death, but animal welfare is labour intensive and adds to costs and these days it is simply expedient to “allow for a certain percentage of loss to stock” as they say in commercial speak. What kind of losses are deemed acceptable are a matter of farming ethics, commercial reality and public ignorance.