A pregnant Soay sheep with a broken leg – what to do?

Just when we thought we could relax and wait for lambing to begin, Steve came back to the house looking agitated and clearly worried. He discovered one of our pregnant ewes, Venus, in dire straits in the Maternity Ward. Here’s his report:

 “When I first saw Venus out of the corner of my eye, I thought one of our ewes had lost her mind, standing on three legs, holding her back right leg straight behind her and shaking it furiously. Not until she paused momentarily did I see that her leg was broken between the hock and the dewclaw. When she shook her leg, her foot twirled around at a 180-degree angle, rather like a swivel club. This was not right. What to do.”

Once Steve was able to enclose Venus in the shelter, we quickly assessed whether we should try to save her, realizing the odds were not great of managing to keep her safely pregnant long enough to deliver, yet keenly aware of the likely expense of treatment. We will never know for sure what path we would have taken had she been an ordinary ewe, but Venus is carrying a genetically interesting lamb so we elected to try to save her.

These are hard questions, somewhat to our surprise. Soay sheep are utterly endearing and we love having them, but when you start talking about x-rays and casts and more than 10 or 15 minutes of a vet’s time, the expense can swamp the value of the animal and then some. If we had only a few Soay, we might seek intensive vet care for every problem, but with over 100 sheep, we really have to be somewhat businesslike about prioritizing when and how much to spend on husbandry.

Off to the vet went Steve with Venus in a dog crate, the Soay shepherd’s one-animal “trailer.” An x-ray revealed a clean transverse break in the middle of her metatarsal bone. Back he came with Venus in a full-leg cast, complete with an artificial “hoof” made by daubing some quick-hardening epoxy-like stuff on the tip of the cast, complete with the two points characteristic of a real hoof. So far so good. But immediately upon landing back in the Maternity Ward, Venus began to flail again and banged the cast against anything she could find. Steve fashioned a small enclosure, about 4 x 5 feet, within the shelter using bales of straw. He gave her a bucket of water, some hay, and left her to heal. Here is the first recovery room.


As near as we can tell, Venus interpreted the pain in her leg, and perhaps the weight of the cast as well, as a predator attack. From the outset, she had tried to shake off what had “grabbed” her. Whatever her nightmares were, she managed to work the cast off overnight and we found her the next morning still in her little recovery room, but with her leg once again unset. The cast was intact but thrown off to the side of the enclosure. Either she had shaken it off, or wedged it somehow, giving her purchase, and pulled it off. It was back to the vet for another cast, this one under “warranty,” thank goodness. The vet sawed the cast in half, re-cemented it, applied it somewhat tighter than before, and sent her home with pain medication but no sedative since she is pregnant.

Steve’s nothing if not a quick learner, so as we drove to the vet the second time, he talked through a better confinement arrangement. Clearly it needed to be much smaller, about the size of the dog crate or even narrower if possible, to prevent Venus from having any room to swing her leg and kick off the cast again. The dog crate had two drawbacks, instability and the air vents on the sides, which could catch the artificial “hoof” points. But Steve remembered a piece of our Shaul panel system we use only occasionally, 2-foot wide contraptions called “alley supports” that form each end of a makeshift “lane” for moving animals between pens. Why not make the sheep world’s shortest lane?

And that’s exactly what he did. Using two 5-foot panels and the two alley supports, he got the enclosure down to about 2 x 5 feet. A single straw bale tipped on end brought the length down to just over three feet. A single scrap of 4 x 4 inch “horse” panel cut to size formed the “gate.” Three scraps of plywood covered the three sides of Shaul panels so there would be no slots where the cast could catch. Here’s what the new outpatient facility looks like.


All that remained was to get Venus out of the truck, out of the crate, and into the recovery room. The whole barnyard was concerned. Here’s Isaac, our Anatolian shepherd puppy, following the gurney (a.k.a. garden cart with dog crate – nice fit, eh?) into the Maternity Ward.


Here’s Venus with her cast. Woebegone, isn’t she?


Here’s Venus in her little stall.


And finally, here’s Llucy, ever the faithful guardian llama, checking on Venus to make sure her pillows have been fluffed and her bedpan, uh, make that water bucket, is in place.


It’s 48 hours later and the evening lamb check, which of course now includes Venus, confirmed that she made it through another day without kicking off the cast. We are hopeful. Stay tuned.

For now . . .

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  1. Robbyn says:

    I’ve tried leaving a comment, and I’m not sure if my computer is cooperating. I just wanted to say HOORAYYYY for finding your journal about Soay sheep!! Please keep it going…I’m SO delighted to find your blog!

    We are considering raising Soay sheep when we can get some acreage, and we want to learn as much as we can ahead of time. Thanks so much for sharing your journey!