Updated March, 2021
This blog describes risks to pregnant women during lambing season, what to watch out for and how to avoid the hazards. This advice also applies to cattle, goats and pigs although we are more likely to be closer to lambs than the young of other livestock.
When is Lambing Season?
From March to Easter time, little lambs appear in the fields and families are out enjoying a range of Easter events on farms or farm parks. They are cute and attractive to adults as well as children. Many lambs are born in lambing sheds and aren’t let out into the fields until they are several weeks old. In some farms, lambs are often born in the fields.
What’s the risk?
Whilst we’re all out enjoying the spring weather, pregnant women in particular should be aware of the additional risk to them. Pregnant women should especially avoid close contact with animals that are giving, or have recently given birth. Although the infection may be uncommon, the risk is well known amongst the farming community.
When lambs are born, they are coated with a protective layer of mucus within the water membrane which ‘kick starts’ the animals immune system – much like humans when they are born. However, these water membranes and foetal sacks can also carry infections.
It is not just on the lambs themselves that carry the risk of infection but also, for a period of time, their bedding, hurdles, fences and any vehicles or clothes that farm workers have been using during lambing.
Farm livestock can carry infections such as chlamydiosis, toxoplasmosis, listeriosis and Q-fever. These are all known as zoonotic infections.
What are Zoonotic Infections?
Zoonotic infections are those that jump between species and, in this case, are caused by micro-organisms such as bacteria, viruses or parasites.
These risks to human health are subject to the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH). This means that the landowner or farm manager should carry out Risk Assessments, and take steps to prevent such infections being transferred to humans, especially pregnant women who may be visiting, or working on, their premises.
The majority of zoonoses produce flu-like symptoms in humans and to avoid mis-diagnosis, doctors should be told that there has been contact with sheep. Infections are more likely to occur in pregnant women but also in young children, the elderly, people without a spleen and those with transplanted organs.
What Diseases can Zoonotic Infections Transmit?
Chlamydiosis is a bacterial disease from infected sheep or goats. In most humans it leads to mild flu like disease.
However, in pregnant women it can cause severe life threatening disease in the mother. It can also lead to stillbirth or miscarriage of the unborn child.
Toxoplasmosis is a parasitic disease. For most healthy people there are no symptoms or only mild flu-like symptoms. However, it can be a serious disease in pregnant or immune-compromised people. It can be transmitted from sheep but also from birds or cats.
Listeriosis is a bacterial infection. During the first trimester of pregnancy, listeriosis may cause miscarriage. As the pregnancy progresses to third trimester, the mother is more at risk. Symptoms are a temperature of 38 degrees or above, aches and pains, chills, vomiting and diarrhoea. If it’s not treated, severe listeriosis can cause serious infections like meningitis in babies, and possible miscarriage.
Q fever is a bacterial disease. In most people it only causes a mild flu-like illness, but it can lead to more severe disease in pregnant women. It is transmitted by sheep, goats and cattle.
What Should we do if we are Worried?
These infections are uncommon but although the risks are low, pregnant women should still be aware of them. Seek medical advice if they experience fever or flu-like symptoms or if concerned that they could have picked up an infection from a farm environment.
It is important to note that some symptoms may only appear 2-3 weeks after the intital infection.
How can we Avoid Infection?
As with many outdoor risks the best protection is awareness, avoidance and maintaining good personal hygiene if visiting at risk areas. Infections are generally spread by handling farm animals, their afterbirth, faeces or urine. Maintaining good person hygiene such as washing your hands regularly is the main action required – or using a disinfectant hand gel.
To avoid the possible risk of infection, pregnant women should:
- Not help to lamb or milk ewes, or to provide assistance with a cow that is calving or a nanny goat that is kidding
- Avoid contact with aborted or new-born lambs, calves or kids or with the afterbirth, birthing fluids or materials (e.g. bedding), that may be contaminated by such birth products
- Not handle (including washing) clothing, boots or any materials that may have come into contact with animals that have recently given birth, their young or afterbirths. Potentially contaminated clothing will be safe to handle after being washed on a hot cycle
- Ensure contacts or partners who have attended lambing ewes or other animals giving birth take appropriate health and hygiene precautions. This includes the wearing of personal protective equipment and clothing, and adequate washing to remove any potential contamination
Can we still visit a farm to see the lambs?
It is good practice that everyone visiting a farm, farm park or zoo should regularly wash their hands. They should also cover up any cuts, and don’t eat, drink or smoke in the ‘contact’ areas with the animals.
Farms that have the public visiting them should follow current regulations and guidance which defines the areas on the farm that are ‘contact’ where it is likely that people will be able to handle or pat animals.
People should be made aware of the risk of zoonoses before they come on to the farm, especially pregnant women. If attending a lamb event, there should be warnings on site. It is important to maintain a balance between scare-mongering and raising awareness. Warning signs should be placed outside buildings, washing facilities must be set up on site – close to the lambing area – and parents or teachers should check that children do not put fingers in their mouths after touching lambs or structures in the lambing areas.
Farmers and livestock keepers have a responsibility to minimise the risks to pregnant women, including members of their family, the public and professional staff visiting farms. Most responsible farms, farm parks and petting zoos will have signs up warning of the additional risks during lambing time.
At this time of the year, it’s great to see a new generation of farm livestock in the fields. Stay safe out there and look after yourself and y
our own new generation inside you!
This is just one of the environmental risks we cover in our 2 day Outdoor First Aid courses along with others such as Ticks & Lyme Disease, Rats & Leptospirosis, and others – not all exclusive to pregnant women though!
Our Outdoor First Aid courses are suitable for farm workers as well as Outdoor practitioners and the general public. To find out more about these courses, follow this link: