Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Farming life: Why I shot my sheep

Sometimes to spare an animal from pain, a farmer has to make a heart-breaking choice 
June 5, 2024

It was a Monday evening in lambing season, and we had a handful of sheep still waiting to give birth. In the preceding weeks the ewes had been kept in a small field without too much grass, to prevent their lambs growing too big, which can create problems in labour. We checked them almost hourly, and noted changes in their mood, activity and location in the field and within the flock. One sheep had been named the busybody, as she wanted to get involved whenever another ewe had its lambs. The busybody had been nosing around for days, and generally got in our way throughout the lambing. 

That Monday evening, the busybody displayed all the classic signs of a ewe going into labour. She scratched the soil, almost like she was making a nest. She ground her teeth and stretched, walking around in small circles as though she was mightily uncomfortable. She lay on the floor and strained, going through the motions of giving birth, but when I carefully inspected her, there was still no sign of a lamb.

When an animal is in this level of pain, the good shepherd intervenes. Speaking gently and slowly, as I always do with the sheep—they know my voice—I carefully put my hand inside the ewe’s birthing canal to check whether she was dilated and if I could feel the lamb. 

Immediately there was a gas release, and I knew all was not well. This is the classic sign of a lamb having died inside the mother. I tried to coax the large, single lamb out, working with the ewe as she strained in her contractions. On my knees, I toiled for some time. It was already dark, and at midnight, having given her a few breaks to catch her breath, I called it off for the evening. The ewe got up and walked around, and I thought it best not to stress her further. 

I saw my own sadness reflected in my wife’s eyes

I returned at first light—4.45am—to find her once again on the floor in the throes of her contractions. For another half an hour, this time in the pouring rain, I tried to help her give birth. I think I knew even before I got to her that morning that my efforts would be futile. But I had to try, for her sake, and for my own, to avoid the haunting thought: “Could I have done more?”

At 5.30am, I made my decision. After whispering gentle reassurances to the ewe, I trudged to my house to collect my gun. I wish my wife or my parents had been there, but with everyone asleep I had to make the decision alone. It would be hours before the vet would be at the surgery, so it was down to me, and it was my responsibility to do the best thing for her. I had to put an end to her suffering. 

I’ve been forced to make this decision in the past for different animals, but never before with a sheep. It is not something I want to repeat. I returned to the field with my shotgun, the heaviest shot cartridge selected, and extra rounds in my pocket in case it wasn’t an instant kill. I once again spoke gently, and took aim, her eyes looking back at me. I squeezed the trigger. I heard the report of the gun: I had struck the back of the skull, the base of the spine, and it was over. Blood poured from her head, and she stiffened and kicked, but she was gone. No more pain. While this is standard, recommended practice in this situation, it didn’t feel normal to me.

I moped back to the house, the rain now pouring, and I met my wife at the door. She looked at me, looked at the gun, and looked back at me.

“It was no good,” I said, “I couldn’t do any more for her.” I saw my own sadness reflected in my wife’s eyes, in the slump of her shoulders. We had both known this sheep since she was a lamb and had birthed her two years previously from another favourite ewe.

As the days passed, I reassured myself, and was reassured by others that I had done the right thing. I know I gave the ewe everything, as a good shepherd should. But I will remember this always. We ensure on our farm that every day is the best day possible for our livestock, including their last day, whatever the circumstances. Our responsibility continues in sickness and in health, at any time of the day or night, every day of the year.