Sheep farm’s future in doubt after wildfire

Sheep farm’s future in doubt after wildfire

15 October 2006

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UC Davis staff helps tend to Slaven family herd, which decreased by 75 percent after September blaze

CA, USA — For four generations, the sounds of October on the Slaven family ranch have been ones of renewal, the bleating of ewes giving birth and the cries of newborn lambs.

This year, the sounds are only of grief.

A wildfire that tore through the family’s rolling ranch northwest of Sacramento in late September decimated the family’s herd, leading to the deaths of 75 percent of the family’s 1,200 sheep.

For the past few weeks, the family and veterinarians from UC Davis have endured a wrenching, daily ritual.

They examine the surviving sheep and divide those that stand a chance of living from those too badly injured to survive. Most of the dead are being dumped into a massive burial pit in a remote corner of the family ranch.

“I don’t know where it’s going to lead to,” said Mike Slaven, who co-owns the ranch with his parents, Bill and Joan. “Even with the sheep that are left, to me, it’s a total loss.”

About 100 of the sheep escaped the fire unscathed. The remaining 200 or so survivors may never fully recover, said Dr. John Madigan, head of the Veterinary Emergency Response Team from UC Davis, which has been tending to the sheep since the fire.

As many as 30 volunteer faculty veterinarians and students examine the sheep daily and administer burn ointment and other medication.

The animals’ injuries include exposed nerves on their hooves, smoke-damaged lungs and blindness.

In many cases, the most humane thing the team can do is euthanize the animals, Madigan said.

A green “X” marked on the back of a sheep’s head is a sign it has been deemed too sick to recover.

The wildfire scorched more than 11,000 acres in Yolo County on Sept. 22 and 23, with the Slaven family ranch enduring the worst damage.

Officials say they believe the fire might have started from a downed Pacific Gas & Electric Co. power line, but the investigation is ongoing. A nearby ranch lost about 275 sheep, almost its entire herd.

California is home to 2,500 sheep and lamb operations that include 650,000 animals, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s national statistics service. The state has the second-highest number of sheep and lambs in the country, behind Texas.

The Slaven family came to the United States from Ireland in the 1800s and ultimately settled in rural Zamora, about 30 miles northwest of Sacramento. They raised sheep and farmed wheat, Joan Slaven said.

The fire’s financial effect on the Slavens’ farm will be devastating, family members said.

Most of the female sheep were pregnant, due to give birth in late October.

The family usually sells more than 1,000 lambs every year to a livestock plant near Dixon, receiving about $125 a head, Mike Slaven said.

Madigan and the other veterinarians don’t know how many — if any — of the remaining pregnant sheep will have successful births.

Wool from the older sheep normally brings in additional money, but much of the wool on the remaining animals is badly charred. Many sheep have patches of raw, exposed skin.

Some relief has come from local government.

Yolo County’s Board of Supervisors declared a state of emergency on the ranch, and the county and the city of Woodland are paying a rendering plant to pick up some of the sheep carcasses.

Madigan and his colleagues hosted a benefit on the UC Davis campus Saturday to raise money for the Slavens and the neighboring ranch.

The Slavens’ insurance does not cover fires, Bill Slaven said, and the family has received no compensation for the animals that were lost.

“If the sheep get hit by a train on the railroad six miles away, we’re covered,” he said. “But this isn’t.”

In the coming days, the Slavens expect the death toll to rise. Although he maintains a stoic presence, Mike Slaven is feeling each loss.

“It never bothered me when we sent the old sheep away or I had to put one or two down,” he said quietly. “But when you see this, it’s different. I get attached to these old girls.”


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