Lambing time, especially in the uplands, brings many challenges. Good lamb production and survival may depend on the condition of breeding ewes, winter and spring feeding, as well as the vagaries of the weather.
As hill sheep lambing begins in earnest in west Kerry and other mountainous areas in early April, the prolonged cold weather experienced up to mid-March, with snow covering much of ground above 500m and sub-zero nightly temperatures causing frozen pipes and difficulties supplying water to animals in some locations, has resulted in very little growth and further stress on lambing ewes.
Therefore, maintaining good survival after lambing will be critical in hill sheep lambing areas this year. Apart from losses of stillborn lambs at birth, hill sheep farmers may also have the added worry of predation by foxes and grey crows in the first week or two after birth.
This is usually less of an issue where lambing takes place in paddocks around the farm and a close eye can be kept on the progress of lambing. Foxes can be deterred by lighting in such areas and, also, by electric fencing as demonstrated in trials at Leenane. Where possible, bringing ewes into indoor sheds to lamb will be beneficial to lamb survival.
However, in some cases, farmers have traditionally controlled foxes and crows by laying poison applied to meat baits. In the past, poisons, such as strychnine, were used to kill foxes but have proven lethal to valuable sheep dogs, as well as other harmless wildlife that might scavenge on poison baits.
Strychnine has been banned for many years but other equally potent substances are still in use, including Alphachloralose (Killcrow).
While some farmers continue to use poisons for foxes and crows, most farmers in sheep country have stopped using poison. Many believe that poison is of little use in controlling foxes because foxes locate food mainly by smell and avoid such baits, probably because they detect human scent.
The main disadvantage in using poisons on meat baits is that killing is indiscriminate. Apart from the real danger posed to farm dogs, poisons are a serious threat to birds of prey that might scavenge occasionally on dead livestock. In Kerry, this has resulted in the deaths of several white-tailed sea eagles. Almost all the deaths of these birds were during the late winter and spring when poisons have been traditionally used to control foxes. The recent death in Co Leitrim of one of only three golden eagle chicks to be bred in the wild in Ireland for over 100 years resulted from the bird eating part of a sheep carcase laced with poison.
Most farmers have given up or do not use poison but, instead, favour safe and effective alternatives for controlling foxes and crows. Shooting is the safest and best means of controlling foxes. Problem foxes can be targeted and there is no threat to other wildlife or farm animals. In some areas, local gun clubs may offer a fox control service. Currently, the use of poison meat bait for control of grey crows and magpies is illegal (Dept. of Environment, January 2008) but there are good alternatives available.
Crows can be caught in larsen traps, available in gun shops, although these are effective in only catching one or two crows at a time. Large 'ladder' traps are very effective in controlling crows. Traps can be made out of wood and chicken wire but are strong enough so that they can be easily moved from site to site.
Once a decoy crow or magpie has been caught and is maintained alive with food and water, the trap can catch several crows at a time. Traps should be checked daily and all crows, except the decoy, removed and dispatched away from the trap.
At present, under EU and departmental regulations, it is illegal to use fallen livestock as a meat bait. Dead livestock should be removed and sent to an approved knackery. Using dead livestock to poison foxes and crows could result in the deaths of protected birds such as eagles and red kites that may be attracted to scavenge on carrion.
If poison is considered the only possible means of controlling foxes, it should be placed under cover, so only foxes can find it by scent and not birds that find food by sight. Poison left in the open is a serious risk to farm dogs.
In such cases, farmers are required to notify local gardaí, place signs at field gates or at the roadside, and have the bait staked. Following good practices such as these will help protect your flock and maintain a healthy and safe environment for all wildlife.
Allan Mee is project manager with the Irish White-tailed Sea Eagle Reintroduction Programme based in Direen, Black Valley, Beaufort, Co. Kerry.
The goodwill of the farming community is appreciated by all of us who live and work in the countryside. Together, we can help sustain wildlife and farming livlihoods in hill sheep country.