Sponging Sheep

Many years ago I was at a wedding, and ended up standing at the bar beside a group of farmers. This resulted in me overhearing the most bizarre conversation of my life, which went something like “you need to apply the sponges correctly, and then waffle the scrotum. If you find you’re getting watery semen, that’s because you’re not waffling correctly”.

OK, that’s probably not how the conversation went, but I definitely remember sponges, semen and scrota being mentioned several times, very loudly, and in public, without any of these hardy looking farmers batting an eyelid.



Fast forward ten years, and now I’m the one concerning myself with sponges and scrota (albeit not yet waffles nor watery semen).

So what is ‘sponging’ I hear you ask? Well, basically it involves inserting a marshmallow-sized progesterone impregnated sponge into a ewe’s vagina for two weeks before they go in with the tup. In our case, we used this to ‘tighten up’ lambing, so that it took place over a four day period, rather than the usual 2-4 weeks.

chronogest sponge

A ewe’s progesterone levels naturally go up and down during their fertility cycle, and it’s the progesterone levels dropping that brings on ovulation. So, when you remove the sponges, this causes progesterone levels to fall, and 48 hours later, the ewe should be ‘in season’ and receptive to the tup.

If you want your ewes to cycle earlier in the year than they normally would, you have to give an injection of PMSG (pregnant mare serum gonadotropin) when you remove the sponge (many show flocks do this, so they can lamb as early as possible). However, since we were still tupping at the normal time, we were able to skip this step.

The sponges are inserted using an applicator, plenty of lube and a sense of humour. The applicator seemed kinda expensive for what it was, so we made our own out of some plastic plumbing pipe, being very careful to sand all the cut edges smooth. In essence, it worked the same as the cork gun you probably had as a kid – load the sponge into the applicator, lube up, insert into the vagina, and POP! 😀


The sponge instructions say “Sponges should be removed after the required time by gently pulling on the strings. As each sponge is removed, it may be accompanied by a small amount of distinctive-smelling fluid”. Now, language like that is usually farming code for “watch out – you’re about to lose your lunch!”, and indeed a gush of watery fluid did follow each sponge as it was removed. However, it wasn’t particularly foul smelling, and I did manage to retain my stomach contents. What did surprise me though, was how hard I had to pull on the string to remove the sponges. (Of course, The Shepherdess tells me that it can be just the same with tampons, and that somehow I should have known this in advance.)

So did they work?  Well in a word, yes!

36 hours later, our tup Brynmor was subject to a considerable amount of flirting through the fence, and was about to have a very good day indeed! 😀

sponge effect.jpgNow, because we were effectively expecting our boy to do two week’s work in one day, we did manage him quite closely, by putting him in a pen with one or two ewes at a time, and removing them once each had been served twice. This was, to put it mildly, an interesting way to spend a morning! After that, we left him in with the girls as normal.

After three days, we put coloured raddle paste on his belly, so we could see if any of the girls ‘returned’ to the tup (i.e. did not become pregnant on that first service, so would therefore lamb later). Luckily none did, which set us up for a nice tight lambing.


And tight it was!  All of our eight ewes lambed over a four day period, rather than the 2-3 weeks we had experienced previously. This meant that we could get lambing and mothering up safely out of the way within a single week. Now, given that The Shepherdess and I both work full time, the impact of that is really quite significant. Also, having all of the ewes lambing at the same time meant there were more opportunities for adopting lambs onto other mothers (e.g. giving a triplet to another ewe who only had a single), which can be really useful in a small flock.


In summary, sponging is definitely something I would recommend that smallholders consider doing. It really did make our lives easier, and is something we will be doing every year from now on.



First Skein

So after our recent spinning lesson, I ended up buying a cheap spinning wheel from Ebay. When I went to collect it, the seller said “I bought this new a few years ago for my wife, but she never figured out how to work it, so it’s never been used”……  When I got it home, I managed to date the wheel as an Ashford Traditional wheel, made sometime around 1982!!

Anyhow, after a couple of sessions spinning black Bob Marley wigs, or white Santa Claus beards, The Shepherdess finally said “aren’t you supposed to twist two bits together to stop it from going all frozzly?”

“Of course!” I said. How hard can it be? 🙂

Well as it turns out, quite hard:


So, after a bit of research on Youtube, it turns out that I was going the wrong way! (face palm!). When you’re plying, you have to spin the wheel in the opposite direction, to counter the twists you put in when you spun the individual strands.

“Yes, I thought  that” said The Shepherdess. “But you wouldn’t have listened to me anyway”.

So, it turns out that if you actually twizzel the strands together the right way, the resulting yarn is, well, almost yarn!! 😀


I then wound the wool off the bobbin, and onto a hastily constructed, and very noddy niddy noddy.


I then tied up the resulting skein and took it off the niddy noddy.


It was still a bit frizzly, so I gave it a rinse in some hot water and have now hung it above the Rayburn to dry.


Would you believe it?  That’s very nearly yarn!
I think I’ve earned myself a whisky now! 😀

Young lambs are prone to hypothermia, particularly if they get wet or aren’t getting enough colostrum or milk from Mum. The procedure for treating hypothermic lambs is given in the flowchart below:

Hypothermic Lamb Flowchart

Information on stomach tubing and glucose injections can be found elsewhere, so for now let’s concern ourselves with how we warm up cold lambs.

I built a plywood lamb warmer box last year, but only just got around to finishing it off and fitting the heater control. Here’s how I did it:

  1. I used a plastic bread tray for the floor. This is perfect because it lets the heat rise up from underneath the lambs to warm them. Also it’s easily cleaned or disinfected, whilst the holes are too small for lambs to get their feet trapped in.


2. I turned the bread tray upside down, built a plywood box around it, and fitted an electric fan heater on one side. This is arranged so that the heater is mounted in a vertical baffle chamber so that the hot air is forced downwards to the floor, then upwards past the lambs and out of vents at the top of the other side of the box.



The box has an internal partition which divides it into a space for two lambs (e.g. twins which you want to keep together), and another space for a single lamb.

3. I then fitted a cheap thermostatic temperature controller. The temperature sensor is mounted right in the middle of the warming box (marked by the red circle in the photo above), and the controller mounts very crudely through the side panel (this isn’t art or craftsmanship; it’s functional engineering, and yes, I did make a mess of the plywood!)


The controller can then be set to control to any temperature you like. The key here is to warm the lambs, not to cook them, so take their temperature regularly and watch out for them panting.

4. I then finished the box off with an old caravan window which was lying in the back of the shed when we moved here, and which I kept in case it came in handy one day.


5. And that’s it! Hopefully I won’t have to use this too often, but it saved two lambs last year before it was even finished, and I’m sure will go on to give many years of service.



It’s about now that smallholders’ thoughts turn to lambing. This is for us, the most amazing, exhausting, frustrating, saddening, exciting and beautiful time of year.


We weren’t that well prepared last year, and as a result, had many nights of broken sleep, getting up to check on expectant or new mothers and their offspring.


BUT, I’ve got it sorted now. Do you think this will work? 😀


bc5What do you mean, “Yeah right?”, Bonnie?


First Time Spinning

We’ve kept sheep on our smallholding for a few years now, and though they’ve helped to keep us well fed, they haven’t yet clothed us. So, we were delighted when my Mum bought us a day’s spinning class for Christmas from Woolshed31.co.uk.

We started out with an introduction to spinning wheels and how they work, then spent a bit of time practicing our footwork…..


…..before being let loose on some actual fibre. I found this to be confusing, fascinating, hilarious and rewarding in equal measure 🙂




The Shepherdess did a better job at controlling both her hands and composure, and was soon onto spinning a raw fleece taken from Bonnie, one of our Zwartbles ewes.




I, on the other hand ended up with something akin to a first attempt at woolly sausage making.


However, after a little coaching from Anne, I finally got the hang of it, in an over-twisted, wonky and oddly satisfying sort of way 😀


If you’ve ever struggled with a telephone cable tying itself in knots, try to imagine attempting to un-twist it whilst dancing a jig, rubbing your belly and patting your head simultaneously, and you’ll get the idea.

Oh well, never mind!


By the end of the session, we had each managed to fill up a bobbin with our own unique take on knitting wool design. As the finished yarn was wound off the bobbin and into balls for us to take home, it became progressively more variable, lumpy and twisted as we went back in time – we had obviously learned something!!




All in all, this was a great way to spend a day. Our sincere thanks go to Anne at Woolshed31.co.uk, for being such an enthusiastic teacher, and for letting us loose in her studio.


I’ve been playing about with grain feeders for our hens for a while now, and I think I’ve finally cracked it! 🙂


What I wanted was a feeder that only released small quantities of feed at a time, to prevent wastage and ensure there was no uneaten food hanging about to attract vermin. I remembered seeing a pheasant feeder once that had a ‘trigger’ hanging from a barrel that the birds would peck at to release feed, so that gave me this idea. I never looked to see how it worked, but perhaps it was something like this!!


I needed a way to hang the trigger, so I took a 15mm copper pipe-tee and drilled a hole opposite the ‘branch’, to accept a long 6mm coach bolt. I then screwed a nut on the end of the bolt and hit the tee flat with a hammer (very satisfying) until it was held securely.


I then drilled a hole in the bottom of a blue plastic barrel, dropped the trigger in and suspended the whole thing from the duck-run fence. The barrel will take a full sack of wheat, and I put some old paving slabs underneath to stop the area becoming muddy.


I had to make some tweaks to this along the way, so I’ll share them here to hopefully save you the experimentation if you fancy making one yourself:

1) The height is critical. Too high, and the hens won’t figure it out. Too low and they won’t go under it. I found I had to start with the base of the barrel about chook head height to begin with, so that when they walked under it, they nudged the trigger with their backs and grain fell out out ‘by accident’ (they then started wandering about underneath the feeder and looking bemused when it rained grain seemingly at random!). Once they’d figured out that they could peck at the trigger to get food, I gradually raised the feeder up until they had to stretch to get at it (this will hopefully keep it out of the reach of vermin).

2) The hole diameter in the barrel is very important. Start small and increase it if you need to. I did the opposite (oops), and had to reduce the size of the hole using epoxy putty as it was releasing too much grain at once, leading to wastage. In the end, my hole is about 10mm across, and releases only a few grains per peck so this might be a good starting point. It’s very important that it’s a little bit difficult for the hens to get at the grain. If too much releases at once, they get lazy and peck away until there’s a puddle of it at their feet, which then makes a mess. If only a few grains release at once, it’s easier to eat them up each time than keep pecking at the trigger, and it then works as intended. Obviously the hole size must be adjusted for different sizes of food and different trigger diameters.

3) The barrel has to have a watertight lid otherwise rain will leak in and the grain will spoil. That’s also the reason it’s hung the way it is, as I didn’t want to drill holes in the sides to mount legs if that meant water would get in. Eventually I’ll think of a more elegant way to support it, but that will do for now!

4) It seems to help if the end of the trigger is red. I originally had a piece of red tape on the end of the trigger which eventually got pecked off. Still, it seems they’ve got it figured out by now!



As ever, this design could be modified or made in all sorts of different ways (for example maybe an old fork or spoon could be used as the trigger? I see no reason why not!).

So, apart from giving the barrel a quick nudge once in a while to make sure it’s still full, I hardly have to worry about the hens any more. Now if only they’d tell me where they’re hiding their eggs!? 🙂


By the way, if you liked this post, check out my idea for a home made chicken drinker.


This one started when a friend of mine was scrapping a rusty old box trailer. However, since we also needed a new shed to house our next batch of meat chickens, a project was born!


The original idea came from this rather fantastic commercial setup which I’d originally seen on Youtube, though naturally my budget doesn’t quite stretch to one of those!


Unfortunately I forgot to take any photos before I began, but the trailer I started with looked pretty similar to this, only in much worse condition:


Whilst the plywood floor and walls were completely rotten, I  was surprised to find that beneath fairly serious layer of rust, the structure was actually still pretty good. So, armed with an angle grinder and wire brush attachment, I stripped everything back to solid metal, treated with ‘krust’ and welded on some uprights and roof supports. (There would have been other ways of doing this of course, but I was looking for an excuse to use the stick welder I got for Christmas!). After welding and painting the frame, I cut plywood sheets to go inside the frame, treated them with woodstain and simply bolted them to the metalwork.


The end result is fairly self-explanatory, but it does have a few tricks up its sleeve:

  •  The floor is lined with lino, picked up cheap as an offcut from a carpet showroom. I’m hoping that this will make cleaning out nice and easy (NB, I still need to take a plane to the perches to round off the corners a bit).


  • The perches hinge up out of the way for cleaning or when not required (the rope goes through the side panel, so you just pull it up and cleat it off).


  • I also put a hinged trap-door in the far corner. The idea of this is that the dirty bedding can just be swept straight out and onto the ground. From there it’s pretty easy just to shovel it into a wheelbarrow, or more likely just spread it about with a rake before moving the house and its inhabitants to a new area. (We use Hemcore horse bedding for chooks, which composts pretty rapidly)
  • There is a really wide pop-hole made out of a spare “eternit” roofing slate we had lying around. This is important because firstly Hubbards are big birds and secondly they are really stupid. It’s also quite likely we’ll use this house for a small number of turkeys next year.



  • The ramp at the back hinges up out of the way so the house can be moved. The same rope that’s used for opening the pop hole also secures the ramp in the up position.


  • There are large grilles on each end for ventilation. This is very important for keeping poultry healthy.
  • There is a small hatch cut into one of the walls just below roof level. This is for feeding an electric extension cable through, for powering brooder lamps etc.
  • The window is just a perspex sheet robbed from an old caravan which was being scrapped (more wombling! :-))
  • All the edges where the wood meets the metal are sealed with “sticks like sh*t”, which is absolutely marvellous stuff. This will hopefully stop rainwater from getting into the edges of the ply and causing them to rot.

So there you have it. I have to say it was not the cheapest of projects, since despite getting the trailer for free, I had to buy the plywood, angle iron, paint, new inner tubes for the wheels, roofing felt etc, at a total cost of about £250. Given that a supermarket chicken currently costs about £5, this tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the economics of raising your own meat at home. However, I’m hopeful that it will last a good few years, and will be a useful addition to our smallholding.