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Lamb marking

With lamb marking time around the corner, it is timely to remind sheep owners of the need to ensure that the tail is not docked too short.

Docking tails too short is a significant problem on some hobby farms and even some commercial operations. If you dock the tail too short, you are creating future problems - both for yourself, in terms of additional work, and for the sheep, in terms of its long term welfare.

In some overseas countries, docking a lamb's tail too short is actually against the law.

The main purpose of tail docking is to reduce the risk of fly strike throughout the sheep's life. A long, woolly tail can increase the risk of soiling and dagging around the tail and breech area, and thereby significantly increase the risk of flystrike.

Ironically, docking lambs' tails too short actually increases the risk of fly strike as well. A sheep uses its tail to deflect faeces away from its body. It does this by using the muscles in the upper sections of the tail and it can only do that if the tail stub is left long enough. If the tail is too short, soft faeces will dribble down the breech area and stick to the wool, thereby exposing the sheep to fly strike.

The problems associated with tails being too short include:

  • Increased risk of flystrike
  • Increased risk of vulva cancer in ewes, because of continued exposure to direct sun
  • Increased risk of rectal prolapse, because ultra short docking damages the muscles and nerves around the anus.
  • Anecdotal evidence suggests that there may also be an increased risk of vaginal prolapse as well.

Tail docking should ensure that, when the sheep is standing, the "pink bits" (ie the vulva and anus in ewes and the anus in wethers/rams) are covered by the tail stub. To achieve this, the tail should be docked at the second or third tail joint.

On most hobby farms, elastrator rings are the most common and easiest way of tail docking. It is important to understand that this method increases the risk of tetanus. The ring cuts off the blood supply but it takes up to two weeks for the tail to fall off (even longer in older lambs) and it is during this period that the conditions around the wound are conducive to tetanus. So it is essential that lambs have an anti-tetanus shot. In practice, the 5-in-1 "anti-clostridial" vaccines available from your rural merchandiser include a tetanus vaccine but please note that it takes one or two weeks for the immunity to develop. So, simply vaccinating at lamb marking won't work. You need to vaccinate the ewe a few weeks before lambing, as that will give the lamb some short-term immunity via the colostrum. A tetanus (ie 5-in-1 or similar) shot at lamb marking time will extend that immunity beyond the risk period.

Most sheep owners are already aware that docking should be done only on lambs - and the earlier the better. As a general rule, lambs should be docked at no later than 4 - 6 weeks old and ideally around 1 or 2 weeks old. Under no circumstances should weaners or adult sheep be docked (unless under anaesthetic by a vet).

Given the above, if you are buying sheep, you are buying problems if their tails have been docked too short. When you look at sheep for sale, check that the tail covers the "pink bits" (ie the anus and, in ewes, the vulva) when the sheep is standing.

Some hobby farmers choose not to dock tails. If so, you will need to take other steps to reduce the risk of fly strike throughout the sheep's life. You will need to ensure that the sheep is crutched at least once and possibly twice in between shearings and you will need to ensure that your worm program works so that the sheep doesn't scour. You may also wish to consider using one of the prophylactic chemical treatments (e.g. registered dicyclanil, cyromazine or macro-cyclic lactone products) to mitigate the risk of breech-strike.