Jayne Peacock, her sister and her mum run Fleecehaven sheep sanctuary in Exmoor. She tells us how it started and what they do in a day
When all this started, twenty years or so ago, we had no idea where we would end up or what we were getting into. The story of Fleecehaven goes back to the summer of 1995, when we were on holiday in Devon. We were staying on a farm, and the farmer asked my sister, Emma, if she would bottle-feed three of his orphaned lambs. Emma is profoundly deaf and I think she has an incredible ability to communicate with animals. She adored the lambs and named them, and later in the summer, we went back to the farm to see them again. But as the autumn drew near, she was heartbroken at the thought that they would soon be taken away for slaughter.
We spoke to the farmer and told him we would do anything to rescue them. We had nowhere to keep them ourselves, so we offered to buy the lambs and pay the farmer an annual maintenance fee if he would let them stay on his farm. It was a good deal for the him – not only were we paying for the lambs to be looked after, we were also visiting and paying to stay in the holiday cottage on his farm as often as we could!
But every year, it seemed there was another orphan or a poorly lamb that needed looking after – and so our collection of sheep started to grow, and within three or four years we had built up a small flock!
At the time we were living in a semi-detached house in Sussex, but travelling to Devon so often that it seemed sensible to move. In the spring of 2000, a very disabled lamb was born, and he needed constant care, so we had no option but to take him back home with us. We nursed him back to health (and named him Rupert), but there was no way that he was ever going to cope with going back into the field and living a normal life. Rupert was the kick we needed to finally decide to move to Devon, but just as we found a place to buy, the Foot and Mouth epidemic began, and that meant we couldn’t move Rupert. Emma moved to Devon while mum stayed in Sussex with Rupert, and during that time we managed to acquire quite a few more sheep – unwanted waifs and strays, old girls and their lambs that Emma didn’t want to see going to slaughter once the restrictions on the movement of animals were lifted.
A Sizeable Flock
By 2001, when we moved to Devon permanently, we had about seventy sheep and lambs, and that’s when Fleecehaven really began. Word spread amongst local farmers that we would take in sheep that were ill or elderly. Right now, we’ve got about 120 sheep and we are full up – but we still won’t turn sheep away if the alternative for them is slaughter.
Some of our sheep have lived into their twenties – most lambs go to slaughter at between six and nine months, and ewes ordinarily are sent to slaughter once they are considered to be past their useful breeding time, at about six or seven years old.
A lot of people don’t realise that sheep ever need to be rescued. If they are disabled or orphaned, it makes sense – but sometimes if a ewe simply rejects a lamb, the farmer will offer it to us because it just doesn’t make financial sense for him to go to the trouble of bottle-feeding it. Sometimes we get sheep that have been family pets, that for some reason the family can’t keep any longer. Last year Jessie came to us – she had been one of a flock of three sheep kept as pets but the owners had come home from a shopping trip one day to discover that a dog had attacked the sheep – only Jessie survived.
This year we took in a little lamb called Lamborghini – he was found in Dorset, apparently abandoned alone in a field after having been missed in a round-up. It was a similar story with Stevie, who came down to us from Scotland, three years ago. A lady who was walking her dog spotted him alone in a field, just circling around, looking lost. It turned out that he was almost blind, and that was why he hadn’t kept up with his mother when the sheep were rounded up. He had just been left to perish. He was terribly emaciated with he arrived and we are still bottle-feeding him, but now he is part of a group of friends and lives life to the full.
Not So Tough
People tend to think of sheep as pretty tough and self-sufficient, living outside in all weathers with minimal interference from mankind. Because sheep are ‘prey’ animals, they have developed the ability to hide or ignore pain so that they don’t appear to be easy targets. That means that infections and wounds can get very nasty before the sheep will show any signs of discomfort. Sheep in the field might look hardy, but they are quite prone to foot problems and if other conditions aren’t noticed and properly managed they can become quite debilitating.
To be able to be the first to bring their spring lambs to market, farmers are breeding ewes earlier and earlier in the year, which means that heavily pregnant ewes and very young lambs are in the fields when winter is at its worst. Some of the little ones have little chance of survival if the snow comes.
It shocks me that sheep are treated like a commodity. Having lived with them for so long, I’m still amazed by the way they form friendship groups, and the strong family ties they have. A couple of springs ago we took in a ewe with her two lambs – it was the first time she was able to keep her lambs, and who knows how many were taken from her over the years – and she is still very protective of them. A group of twelve came to us from Birmingham, as part of a cruelty case that the RSPCA were involved in, and they’re always together as a family unit.
So many people enjoy seeing the new lambs playing in the fields, but sadly our first thought is always about where they are going to end up. What we’re doing is a drop in the ocean, but the sheep we have will be with us for life.
A Typical Day
Our day starts at about 6am, when Emma will do a walk-round. First, she visits the sheep that are elderly and have special needs. Some of them don’t have many teeth, or need special diets to keep them healthy, so they need feeding by hand. Then she goes to the large shed where most of the sheep choose to sleep. They can come and go as they please, but they rarely choose to stay out at night, they tend to prefer to sleep indoors on the straw. She feeds them and checks to see if any new problems have cropped up – usually there are one or two that have foot problems and need to have their feet trimmed. Sheep are very prone to a bacterial infection called strip that gets between their toes, not unlike Athlete’s Foot. It’s a constant routine to check for that, as it causes a lot of discomfort and when you see sheep out in the field, kneeling to graze, it’s usually strip that’s causing the problem. In the evening, we fill up the hay racks and make sure the sheep have plenty to munch on overnight, especially if the weather is bad.
Our costs for food, bedding and veterinary bills are huge. We converted to charitable status ten years ago, and now we run quite a successful ‘adopt a sheep’ campaign, as well as taking stands at events to explain what we do. We’re really full, but when we’re presented with an animal that is ill, we can’t turn it away. We’re currently fundraising to buy an ambulance – just a second-hand van really, but at the moment when we need to take animals to the vet or go out to collect them, we have to do it in the family car, which isn’t ideal!
You can see more photos and read more stories about our rescued sheep at www.fleecehaven.org.uk