Holistic Care of Sheep pt. 1
Copyright 2008 Alethea Kenney (email: allie@reedbird.com)
These articles are an attempt to explain what a holistic, natural view of raising sheep is and how to incorporate this into your farm, either in part or in full.   It is not a replacement for veterinary advice or medical care when needed but is useful to maintain health in a flock so that less intervention is necessary. If you have questions or comments, please feel free to contact me.  I’m always interested in further information, experiences, etc.
Holistic refers to a view in which the whole body and all its processes is taken into account in health and disease, healing comes from within and is aided by the use of methods that are safe and work with the body to restore health.  The body itself is seen to have what naturopaths term a vital force, or life force, the essence within the body that promotes healing, is the basis of growth and life and exits the body upon death.   This vital force is seen as essential to health and  healing in  any modality that wishes to aid the body in the return to health.   Animals are also seen to possess a vital force and both humans and animals have a propensity to stay healthy.   Health is the normal state and the vital force is in balance, everything is working correctly.   If an animal gets proper nutrition, has access to fresh air and plenty of exercise, in theory then, it will remain healthy according to holistic  philosophy.   Obviously, this is a simplified view since domesticated livestock cannot freely roam the country at will or have access to all the complete nutrition they need in a farm setting without supplementation, but this does not mean that the idea of raising sheep holistically is futile.  
Disease, on the other hand, is seen from a holistic viewpoint as originating, not from outside the body in the form of bacteria, viruses or parasites, but from within as a result of an imbalance in the vital force, a weakness that predisposes an animal to susceptibility to an outside force.   Without the underlying imbalance, an animal will not get sick.   This is the opposite of the Western medical theory of disease and the one commonly held by veterinary medicine.   But I will attempt to show that this is in fact a logical idea that can be demonstrated time and again.   
For instance, if an animal gets injured, we think the wound must be disinfected to prevent bacteria from growing, perhaps a tetanus vaccine given and a systemic antibiotic injection also.   But in fact, the bacteria are not the cause of infection and the wound can heal without intervention if the animal has a strong immune system.   The body has defensive systems in place to deal with injuries that keep infections at bay, only if the animal is compromised will an infection occur.   A healthy animal with strong vital force will have no problems.   The same idea applies to Clostridium and its overgrowth.   Clostridium is present in the soil, in the rumen and is a normal part of the workings of a sheep’s digestive system.   Only if something causes an imbalance in the system will an overgrowth occur and bloating and possibly death result.   Bacteria are seen more as part of a normal environment, their overgrowth at a wound site, in the intestines or as part of skin infections is a result of an imbalance, the bacteria could not “take over” on their own.  
Detoxification is a process that is natural to the body and goes on all the time.   A by-product of conversion of foods eaten to energy required by the body leaves chemicals that are not needed by the body and must be removed as waste.   This is done through the eliminative systems of the body normally and is aided by antioxidants and certain minerals.  When something in the body is out of balance, wastes can build up and create a toxic condition that leads to disease.   Environmental factors also can contribute to the toxic load on the body, such as drugs, chemical dewormers, summer heat and poisons.   This is not to say use of drugs and chemical dewormers is bad but that their use must take into account the overall effects on the body.   These, too, will have to be eliminated and place a stress on the body and an animal already compromised (with heat stress or poor quality hay) may have trouble overcoming the added burden.  Proper nutrition, added vitamins and trace minerals may help offset these problems and can be used to help an animal regain health or maintain it in times of stress.  
I won’t attempt to address what nutritional requirements are needed in Icelandic sheep to maintain good health but I will say that correct mineral mix and minimal chemicals are a must.   Mineral deficiencies, especially those that are so low level as to show few symptoms are at the root of many health issues and are difficult to detect and correct.   Because so many factors affect trace mineral availability it is impossible to give an amount that is going to be useful for every farm.   The use of chemical fertilizers on hay fields not only binds up micronutrients with the heavy metals found as a base in these fertilizers but the fertilizers themselves do not put back in any minerals besides the big three: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.   Herbicides and pesticides add a burden to the body which then has to detoxify and eliminate the chemicals contained within and this adds stress to eliminative systems: skin, liver, kidneys and to a certain extent, lungs.   Acid rain and other environmental pollutants leach and bind up minerals, leaving the soil barren and sterile and mean a farmer must be even more diligent in keeping correct mineral mixes available to stock.   The use of pelleted and processed feeds is not as common in small stock as it can be in large corporate factory farms but these processed feeds, in addition to containing ingredients questionable for true health, also have absolutely no vital force.   Pasture and quality hay still contain the vital force of the plants (from a more scientific standpoint this can be seen as vitamins and minerals, proteins and carbohydrates still available in their unaltered form) while pellets and processed feeds have no vital force and their nutrition comes solely from fortification with synthetic vitamins and minerals.   Although most animals and people can survive on the equivalent of TV dinners, they won’t thrive on this fare.   
What about parasites?   Again, these are seen as part of an imbalance in the system.   A healthy individual will not sustain a large parasite load, either internally or externally.   I witnessed a demonstration of this at a farm where one ewe was not thrifty, she seemed thin and did not compete with the others at the feeders, leaving her to glean what she could after the rest of the flock picked out the best.   She was covered in lice (and no doubt full of internal parasites) but stood body-to-body with the other ewes who were in robust health.   They had no lice, and I did part the wool and check several but she was so lousy that I could see them crawling without even touching her.   Her poor nutrition and state of health allowed this where the ones in direct contact with her remained immune since they were in good health.   This is not to say that a parasite control should not be in place on a farm, it SHOULD.   And herbs, homeopathics and nutrition can be used to maximize the effects.   
This begs the question, “What about those animals that through injury or other problems cannot maintain health and need a helping hand from the shepherd?”  What are the best means of returning this animal to health and what holistic options are available?   
One of the tenets of naturopathy is to do no harm and this is applicable to any procedures done to our animals.   Although modern medicine offers what appears to be miraculous answers to diseases, these treatments all rely on the premise that disease has nothing to do with underlying imbalance and can be wiped out without taking into consideration the state of health of the individual or the whole body.  Without addressing the underlying cause, no treatment will be ultimately successful and the disease will reoccur in one form or another in progressively more severe states until the animal either dies or the underlying imbalance is corrected.    An example of this would be a ewe coughing from some form of pneumonia, an injection of penicillin appears to “cure” the cough and the ewe is returned to the flock only to have the cough return at intervals all season (each time suppressed with an injection)  until the ewe begins to lose weight and eat less, succumb to parasites and eventually die.   The shepherd may decide she died of parasites and this would be true on the surface but the beginning of the problem would be the cough and injection which effectively hid the real problem, a selenium deficiency.   By not recognizing and addressing the underlying imbalance, the problem never was resolved but only changed forms.   Was the penicillin to blame? Yes and no, antibiotics only treat the superficial problem of an overgrowth of bacteria and as was mentioned previously, this is not the same as the cause or underlying imbalance.   The antibiotic may in fact do some harm by further upsetting the balance of the system, killing beneficial bacteria and placing an unnecessary burden on the body to detoxify the system of a foreign drug and the dead bacteria.  
Herbs, homeopathics and vitamin and mineral therapies can all be used to help return the body to health but should be used within the context that the underlying imbalance must be addressed and corrected before true healing can take place.   
Herbs should not be used in place of drugs, as though they were simply a safer substitute for a synthetic chemical.   Although herbs are generally safe, they can be misused and be toxic and their best use is not one of substitution in a Western medical diagnosis but as a way to further aid the body in its own healing action.   


 Further reading:  
Bairacli Levy, Juliette de.  The Complete Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable.  London: Faber and Faber, 1991.  
Coleby, Pat.  Healthy Sheep Naturally.  Australia: Landlinks Press, 2006.