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Winter weather brings tragedy - again

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18 April 2012 in
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OneKind supporter Maurice Gray has been campaigning for years to cut the death toll on Scottish sheep farms in winter. 

Last week (10 April) Maurice wrote to his MSP John Swinney, urging the Scottish Government to give farmers more advice about protecting new-born lambs from severe weather. We thought Maurice’s words were so cogent – and so moving – that we should share them with you.

“A week ago, on 3rd April, snow and freezing temperatures hit much of Scotland. These conditions were forecast well in advance. Even roadside information boards gave warning. In spite of this, some sheep farmers were caught unprepared and lambs died as a result.

“For many years I have been campaigning to cut the death toll on Scottish sheep farms. I have discussed the problem with politicians, government officials, and research workers. Some progress has been made, but there is still a need for improvement.

“What is needed now is a high impact initiative such as a letter and leaflet sent to every sheep farmer in Scotland. The letter would emphasise the need for preparation and the leaflet would detail measures required to safeguard the new-born lambs and the ewes.

“The Scottish Government's own Animal Health Division did a good job in putting information and advice on its website last November. However, there are always some people who need extra help. One such person appeared on the STV News of 3rd April: an Aberdeenshire sheep farmer of 30 years' experience. In some ways he was a hero for he battled through the night to save his sheep and lambs in what he called ‘hurricane winds’ and ‘eight inches of snow’.

“In another way, he might have been rather stupid. He was like someone valiantly bailing out the boat when he should have plugged the hole before setting off. In his own words he said: "I couldn't get moved with the bike. I had to make roads in the field with the Landrover." The fact is he didn't have the right equipment, he should have had the ewes closer to hand. The 5-day weather forecast was accurate and gave him plenty of time for preparation, and of course a man of 30 years' experience will have seen more than one icy blast and snow deeper than eight inches. Sadly, this farmer would not have been the only one to get caught out.

“How do you get people to stop making terrible blunders – blunders that consign infant lambs to horrific deaths? Ideally, these people would be identified and advice given directly. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to identify these farmers and it becomes necessary to make a general approach that risks offending good farmers. The risk is worth taking though, and so is the cost. Failure costs money – it costs the tax-payer by way of compensation and it costs the farmer the true value of his stock and his reputation. It is also diminishes the reputation of Scottish farming. High animal welfare standards do not include abandoning new-born lambs to their fate on icy hillsides lashed by winds that hurt to the very marrow.

“Ice and snow are not the only dangers; I well remember the response of an NFUS official on the Grampian TV News following heavy losses of lambs during very wet weather in late April, 1998. His response was: "They just couldn't take the rain." I hope never again to hear that kind of remark disgracing Scotland's farming. Surely access and shelter are obvious – basic requirements for any animal.

“Having said what I would like, I now would like to say what I don't want. I don't want another reply from Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead telling me that casualties are inevitable on farms in severe weather and everything is done to minimise them. I know about casualties on farms: I have studied agriculture at post-graduate level and I have worked on farms in Scotland and overseas. In any event, it doesn't take much experience to know that there is considerable room for improvement on some farms in Scotland. It is in everyone's interest to see these improvements made.

“Please don't be one of those Scots who turn a blind eye to the suffering of the lambs. Please find the relatively small amount of money needed to jolt the worst of Scotland's farmers into action. It's a small cost, but it could be very cost effective, and it could mean an end to the disgraceful suffering inflicted on infant lambs in Scotland every year.

“In 2010, Scotland's sheep sector received £200,000 in emergency aid to help dispose of the thousands of animals that perished during the winter weather. At that time, Richard Lochhead said: "The impact on individual sheep farmers has been variable across the country and this funding will be targeted at those with the highest losses." One farmer alone lost 132 animals.

“Please do all you can.”

Oh ye! who, sunk in beds of down,

Feel not a want but what yourselves create,

Think for a moment, on his wretched fate,

Whom friends and fortune quite disown!

List'ning the doors an' winnocks rattle,

I thought me on the ourie cattle,

Or silly sheep, wha bide this brattle

O' winter war,

And thro' the drift, deep-lairing, sprattle

Beneath a scar.

From A Winter Night by Robert Burns

What do you think? OneKind believes that farmers in Scotland care for their animals – but since severe winter weather comes every year, why do so many new born animals suffer and die?  How can the Scottish Government bring an end to this tragedy? 

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