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Docking lambs

What are the benefits?

Docking removes most of the lamb’s tail to prevent build up of dags on the wool around the sheep’s back end. Dags attract attack (strike) by blowfly. The sheep become “blown” and the fly’s maggots eat the sheep’s flesh causing great pain and distress. Before you decide to dock a lamb’s tail, consider how long you are going to keep the sheep – will it be a replacement ewe, kept as a pet/companion, or is it destined for the freezer? If you don’t anticipate the lamb will make it through its first summer on your block and will become Christmas lunch, you have an option to not dock your lamb. Always remember, that docking won’t prevent all flystrike by blow flies. Your lamb will also need to be shorn and may require applications of insecticide based products.

What age should you dock lambs?

The Sheep and Beef Cattle Code of Welfare recommends that lambs should not be docked before they have bonded with their mothers after birth. My advice is that this takes place in the first 24 hours of birth. Docking, regardless of the method used, should take place before 6 weeks of age. The earlier it can be done the better.

Method 1 - Rubber rings

The Sheep and Beef Cattle Code of Welfare recommends this is the best method, especially for lay people to use. You can use the rings to take the tail off at the same time as castration.

Avoid using an unheated knife for docking. It is not humane and infection risks are greater.

Key points in docking with rubber rings:

  • Docking is a painful procedure.
  • Do it before the lambs are 6 weeks old.
  • Lambs will experience pain for at least 10-20 minutes after ringing.
  • If older lambs have to be docked, consult a veterinarian regarding the most suitable method and use of anaesthetic. You must use pain relief when docking a lamb over 6 months of age.
  • Use a clean operating area (eg. movable temporary yards) to avoid build up of infection.
  • Do not dock wet lambs or in wet weather to avoid infections.
  • Leave enough tail on the lamb to fully cover the vulva.
  • Dock the tail of male lambs the same length.

Method 2 - Hot iron

This is a wedge-shaped iron blade heated by gas, which can be used to both cut and cauterise the tail in one operation. The lamb is held in a sitting position and the iron is forced down on the tail laid out on the wood docking board.

Key points in docking with the hot iron:

  • Do it before the lambs are 6 weeks old.
  • Lambs will experience pain and struggle during the operation.
  • They show little distress afterward.
  • Make sure the tail is cauterised as it is cut. Don’t press on too hard to cut and not give time for cauterisation.
  • After the operation, 2-3 seconds to make sure there is no bleeding.
  • Don’t be tempted to dip the rear end of the lamb in a drum of dip. This soon becomes dirty and will do more harm than good.
  • If older lambs have to be docked, consult a veterinarian regarding the most suitable method and use of anaesthetic. Their tails may be too thick for this procedure to be effective. You must use pain relief when docking a lamb over 6 months of age.
  • Use a clean operating area (eg. movable temporary yards) to avoid build up of infection.
  • To avoid infections, do not dock wet lambs or in wet weather.
  • Leave enough tail on the lamb to fully cover the vulva.
  • Dock the tail of male lambs the same length.

After care

There should be few problems. Blowfly attack is the most likely and treatment with an appropriate spray will prevent this. Consult your veterinarian.