Anglesey farmer Esther Howie was left in a state of shock when she went for her routine check-up on the family Jacob's flock recently. Something wasn’t as it was supposed to be - the sheep had been badly injured.
The Howie family moved to a holding near Rhosmeirch seven years ago and have put a lot of time, effort and money into improving and maintaining the land.
Esther already had a flock of pedigree Jacob sheep when they moved to the island and has since added a few Shetland sheep into the mix.
Having been busy building up her Jacob flock for over 12 years, she now breeds primarily for wool to support her start-up business - Tyddynys.
As such, she only lambs a few selected ewes each year, carefully choosing which ewes to put to which ram for improving fleece for the craft industry.
So it came as a huge shock when she found out that her flock had been attacked by a dog, leaving her devastated and the business hanging in the balance.
Speaking from her holding, she said: “My main holding is on Anglesey, but a while back I was offered a piece of land to graze near Bangor - great piece for my hill sheep, who are really not that impressed with the terrain at home.
“It’s a good-sized piece of land with a nice big shelter. The landlady lives on one side and a friend on the other to keep an eye on the ewes for me when I can’t be there.
I moved my Jacob ewes up there for the winter and they were thriving.
“Until January this year, I went up for my usual visit during my lunch hour at work and noticed that a mule ewe - my landlady’s adopted pet lamb that now lives with us - had fresh blood coming through her fleece.”
Not sure what had happened but suspecting the sheep had been attacked, Esther checked the field.
“The gate into the field is locked and it is the only entrance. The field runs parallel to the A55 so there would be no reason for anyone to be in there. I thought maybe the ewe had been caught in the hedge or fence somewhere and injured herself.
"I walked the full perimeter of the field checking for fleece in the hedges - knowing that this was going to be unlikely as we had only recently had them cut.”
About two-thirds of her way around she found a large area of grass in the centre of the field that was strewn with clumps of fleece. There was really no mistaking what had happened.
Esther then contacted the police, stating that she was shaken by the fact that this could happen.
I had 11 ewes in that field - 4 of them had injuries - significant injuries that I couldn’t treat with a bit of spray alone.
“I realised I was going to have to bring these ewes back to the holding to shear the fleece where they had been attacked and properly clean and treat the wounds," she said.
The decision was made to bring all of the ewes out of the field for the time being. It was not an easy decision for Esther to make as the fields at the main holding were waterlogged and not really able to sustain the additional livestock.
By the time she arrived to pick up the rest of the ewes to bring them home, they had been attacked again.
“We were absolutely horrified at what we found - the dog had obviously been back. One ewe had been attacked and left stranded on her back, another was severely injured and was hiding in the back of the field shelter.
“Our one and only pet lamb, Bambi, was the last of the offspring from the matriarch of my flock - Delores - who had passed away a few months earlier at the grand old age of 17.
It was simply awful. There was nothing the vet could do for Bambi, her injuries were too severe and we had put her to sleep.
Instead of returning to her day job, Esther now had to spend her time treating wounds, trying to contact the police and a visit to the knackers yard to have Bambi’s body disposed of.
Esther then went to the FUW Llangefni office where she was helped get a hold of the Rural Crime team. The staff there then contacted the police.
"I was soon back at the field, being interviewed by the very understanding and compassionate officer," she continued.
Change of routine
The morning routine for Esther now starts even earlier than normal to fit in cleaning wounds before work.
The ewe that had been left upside down also had significant injuries.
“Her injuries were severe but the vet and I decided we would try and give her a chance. She was still lively and eating which is always a good sign; sadly though, she didn’t make it,” said Esther.
The injuries had cut off the blood supply to the tissue in the ewes tail and back-end and it started to turn necrotic. A week later it was agreed with the vet to have her put down as well.
“She wasn’t in lamb this year but I had chosen her for lambing next year as my second generation shetland-Jacob crossbreeds. Losing her was a great blow,” added Esther.
A quick calculation highlighted that between time taken away from work, vets fees, additional feed cost and medication, the incident had reportedly already cost over £1600 - and they weren’t nearly through it.
“My landlady’s pet lamb, Thelma, developed a nasty abscess from one of the puncture wounds she had sustained and needed a change of antibiotics, so another week of daily injections and wound treatments,” recalls Esther.
What to do next?
The family still has to decide whether to take the sheep back over to the field in Bangor again.
“Besides the obvious pain and distress caused to the ewes themselves, I really can’t afford to treat any more injuries or lose any more of my stock. This has affected almost half my breeding stock and has knock-on consequences far beyond the loss of life itself," Esther said.
“It takes years of careful breeding to develop pedigree flocks - and my business is very much dependent on my girls. Good quality land is in short supply here and at the moment I have lost the use of approximately half of mine - I shall have to make a decision soon on where to graze my flock.
Do I put them back in a field where I know there have already been multiple dog attacks or do I downsize and bring them home with the consequence of not being able to fully develop my business plans?
“I shouldn’t have to make this choice - but I do - because someone else chose not to act responsibly with their pet. I still get tearful about it and I am not a sentimental person normally."
Because of the severe financial and personal loss, Esther said her business is now "hanging in the balance".