Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Rotting Flesh and crawling vision - the perks of the job...

Rarely a week goes by in the summer months when I am not chatting to someone, a visitor or office bound colleague, who remarks on how much I must love my job and how lucky I am to work outside at this time of year.  To which of course I reply, with a suntanned grin, that yes, spring and summer are the bee knees of working outdoors and I wouldn’t swap it for anything (needless to say, they do not make this comment in the depths of winter when they see me trudging into the office soaking wet and frozen to the bone).

However, I feel it is only right to share with you the aspects of the job that come with this luxury of days spent working in the sunshine and fresh air, for with the peak growing and living season it is not only the nice plants and animals that emerge and thrive…

Our Wiltshire Horn sheep flock are a hardy breed that has the excellent quality of shearing themselves, by shedding their fleeces off in warmer weather.  This and the combined attribute of having a very short fleece means that they are generally not very prone to getting hits of Blowfly strike.  Blowfly strike is a hideous scenario that comes in in the warmer, wetter months of late Spring though to Autumn.  Sheep are very prone to it as are long haired pet rabbits (I’ve heard).  Flies will hover round areas of a sheep that are mucky and moist, such as very dirty back ends where the fleece is soiled with faeces or afterbirth and they will land and lay eggs on this soiled fleece.  The eggs hatch, and the maggots eat their way through the soiled fleece…and keep eating.  Eat, eat, eat they burrow their way down through the flesh, with more eggs being laid and hatched continuously.  If the problem is not caught quickly, it can lead to a horrible toxic death within only a few days.  With this cheerful thought in mind, I have been paranoid about fly strike this year and have trained the sheep lookers in the early signs to look for, which includes dark stains on the fleece, scratching, stamping and the sheep generally acting off colour.

We have treated the flock with a flystrike preventative since March this year and I had my fingers crossed we would get away with it…but a few weeks ago Mike, my Thursday looker rang me to say he was concerned about one sheep he had spotted with dark staining on her neck.  I went up to the Down and it didn’t take me long to find the ewe in question and even from a few metres away I could see, without a doubt that she had been hit with blowfly strike.  I coaxed her to me with a bucket of nuts, got the halter on her and commenced a 30 minute battle to get her to the holding pen – she may have had maggots in her neck but they obviously hadn’t weakened her yet as she kicked, jumped, bucked her way to the pen, sometimes lying flat on the floor and refusing to budge – and I defy anyone to try and drag a 70kg sheep by a nose halter if she doesn’t want to move.  However eventually with a mixture of nuts and tough love I got her in the pen, tied her halter to the fence and commenced the clean-up job.  And eeeuuuuurrrrrgh!  What a joyful hour I spent!  On closer inspection I found the poor thing had two holes in her neck both heaving with maggots.  Cracks radiated out from the holes showing where the smaller maggots were starting to spread outwards in fleshy highways and there was a lot of bloody fluid leaking out.  Bearing in mind that the lookers check the sheep daily, this must have been the result of only a day’s worth of hatched maggots which, in the high humidity and very hot weather had accelerated their devastating munching march.  As I scooped out maggots with my finger, reaching as far down into the neck wound as I could reach, I tried not to throw up at the stench that wafted up and around us.  Rotting flesh flavoured my nostrils and the incessant buzzing of more flies around my face had me muttering, swearing and retching at the maggots in equal turn even as I decimated them with the Finger of Death. 

After an hour’s worth of baby wiping, trimming away the blood stained, crusty fleece and ejecting maggots I quickly called Ryan to ask him to come up with suitable sheep transport so that we could take her to our Vet Field at Mottisfont for her recovery.  I poured in some Crovect fluid which did the very satisfying job of burning out all the remaining maggots that were lurking further down under the neck skin and which I couldn’t reach with my finger.  Out they came, wriggling in agony and shrieking their maggoty cries as they abandoned their fleshy ship and threw their grotesque plump bodies over the edge.  I watched with cold eyes and helped them on their way with more scooping actions.  Finally the poor girl was clear of maggots.  I applied various treatments to the holes in her neck including antibacterial and antiseptic spray and, when Ryan and the volunteers arrived we loaded her and one other lucky ewe (to keep her company) into the truck and took them back to Mottisfont.

From this... this...

 this!  Finally looking much better, only a week after the last photo was taken - amazing really.

It is now 3 weeks later and, after a daily routine of cleaning out pus, cleaning the wound and surrounding fleece (I tried several methods to get the blood stained fleece clean including shaving, trimming and a natural nettle shampoo which worked best) she is healing well.  The vet had to come and cut off two big chunks of over granulated gristle which had swelled up out the hole and was preventing it from healing over (I know, more bleurgh) but now she is looking like a much happier sheep again, with the surrounding flesh returned to a healthy pink, and the holes almost fully healed together.

Even now though, as the hot spell has let up slightly and some wetter weather has moved in, I keep my eyes anxiously peeled for any more cases of flystrike…

And talking of eyes, I had an interesting experience with another creepy crawly recently.  During one of my daily clean up visits to Maggot Face (as I fondly named my poor ewe) I was besieged by…well no one knows what.  I had just caught the sheep and was in the process of tying her halter to the gate when I felt and saw something land on the lower lashes of my right eye – and then the pain kicked in as it went in my eye.  Fumbling with the halter I finished tying up the sheep and then climbed over the gate and ran to the truck and looked in the wing mirror looking for the fly or whatever it was that had flown into my eye.  I looked and looked but couldn’t find anything and, blinking hard, I decided I must have blinked it away.  Well throughout the rest of that day, the pain returned off and on to my eye and each time I looked in a mirror and saw nothing, finally concluding that I must  have scratched the lens, or that a fly or a hair must be stuck at the back somewhere and would work its own way out.  I used an eye wash to try and flush it out and carried on with my day. 

However by evening, the pain was still off and on and when it did return it was getting more intense and my eye was more irritated.  My housemate Laura finally got tired of my yelping in pain and running from the kitchen to the mirror that she had me pinned down and peered in my eye with a torch, looking for the elusive hair or whatever it was.

After a few seconds she inhaled and then putting down the torch she put her hand on my arm and calmly said a sentence I never want to hear again in my life:

‘Now.  I don’t want you to panic….but...there is something crawling around in your eye.’

‘Oh very funny!’ I snapped, sure she was joking.

‘Noooo, seriously, I’m not kidding.’

Disbelievingly I looked in the mirror myself, holding the torch to my eyeball and there…at that exact moment…SOMETHING crawled across the black pupil of my eye and disappeared into the other side.

Cue Panic.

As I hopped up and down beating the side of my head and gibbering about staying calm but oh its soooooo gross, Laura grabbed her car keys and ushered me out the door (we realised later how rubbish we would be in a real emergency, as we both ran out the house without money, phones and barely even shoes).

As it was late evening and everything was shut, Laura drove me to the Eye Unit at A and E and I had to endure the disbelieving looks of the receptionists, nurses and eye doctors as I retold my tale.  However once the eye doctor had me strapped in the chair and examined my eye….he almost gave up looking when ‘aha!’ He extracted out the little wretched creepy thing, using the most sophisticated of tools, a wooden stick (very painful on the eye!).  I sighed in relief – until he picked up the stick again and went back into my eye…and again…and again!  After the fourth one he switched to tweezers as he assured me it would be less painful (gibber) and 7 alien beasties later, he washed my eye out and gave me some eye drops to prevent infection whilst assuring me that nothing in the UK lays eggs in eyes or can cause blindness….

Getting home to a ruined dinner and feeling slightly depressed at the whole situation, I shuddered with horror when I felt the familiar pain return…and consequently I plucked two more of the tiny things from my eyeball before finally feeling like they were all gone.  Argh! If they ever get the results back on what the things were, I will let you know – Dylan’s bet is on aliens, other people thought it was something that jumped off the sheep, but based on how they floated down into my eye and the way they wriggled more like some kind of water larvae I am not convinced. 

So the next time someone remarks on how lucky I am to work in the great outdoors, I will smile and nod in agreement, all the while remembering that after the nettles stings, bramble scratches and insect bites, we still have flesh eating maggots and eye dwelling beasties to contend with – but I will still be content, knowing these are only the slightly less desirable perks of the job.

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