In the grip of winter the animals on every farm deserve extra care to help them through the low temperatures. Their main enemies are not just the cold, but more the combination of cold, wind and rain. That is why shelter from the wind is often enough to allow them to thrive. Covered areas stop the rain, which is especially important for donkeys who are well adapted for desert conditions. They cope with cold, but not rain. This is also true of goats, another species that are at home in very dry conditions.
Body weight needs to be regularly checked, together with body scoring. The latter is a method of assessing muscle cover and fat stores and is used by farmers and vets in sheep and horses to give a quantitative idea of their "score". Those with low scores should be separated from the herd/flock and given a richer supply of feed energy and protein.
Because of the wet ground conditions in winter the state of some feet deteriorate. Horses can be more prone to foot abscesses and infections like Thrush and Canker. sheep get Scald or Foot rot and more rarely Strawberry Foot-rot. These problems can be largely prevented by good foot-care and the occasional use of antibiotics.
Pigs, of course, have no fleece to protect them from the cold. They therefore need a windproof sty with straw for bedding, which they arrange as a bed.
Water supply can be compromised in the winter due to ice. If this occurs the ice must be broken on the troughs to allow drinking and the water levels need to be monitored, because if pipes freeze, the troughs will be emptied by drinking. In these situations lack of water can lead to dehydration and constipation due to over-firm faeces. Horses are particularly prone to colic from this during freezing weather. Birds also can suffer in cold conditions, especially from restricted water supply.
Watch for lice in the winter too. The long coats developed by many farm stock mean that lice can hide from the sun. Lousy horses, goats and cattle are common in the winter. Insecticides are usually needed to control these problems.
Clipping of long winter coats is only carried out in horses, because they are often asked to work which generates heat and sweat. To reduce this and allow a more rapid cooling horse, the excess hair is clipped off in patterns that suit the type of work the horse is subjected to (eg Hunter clip, Trace clip etc).
Preparing for spring is always heartening, as it heralds the warmer and longer days. Most species (apart from sheep) loose their thick winter coats in response to the lengthening days. This process may be itchy and so the provision of rubbing-posts to facilitate coat loss can provide a pleasurable activity for some species.
Sheep have to be shorn of their fleeces, which is vital so that they are less attractive to Blow and Screw flies that might otherwise lay eggs on their skin developing into maggots which "Strike" the sheep and can cause a miserable, slow death.
For many animals (but not pigs, sheep, deer and goats) the fact that "spring is in the air" means they begin to think of mating. Their pregnancies may be prolonged (a horse is eleven months and a cow nine) so if conception occurs in the late spring, the newborns arrive the next year just as the grass is starting to grow, thus providing a rich diet for the mothers who need lots of energy and protein for their milk. Pigs are not fussy because they are omnivores and they do not rely upon grass as a food and so can reproduce at almost any time. The smaller cloven hooved animals (goats, sheep and deer) have gestation periods of around 5 months so they tend to mate in the autumn (The "Rutting Season"). This allows them to take advantage of spring grass. Indeed, it is traditional to put the ram to the ewes on November the 5th and to expect lambs on the 1st of April. Another surprising coincidence is that geese start to lay eggs around St Valentine's day, only to end in June or July.
Quite naturally the seasons turn and with them the animals at the sanctuary respond quietly and naturally, as they do throughout the farming world.
Written by: Alastair MacVicar - equine and large animal vet