008 The brown ewe who had the puffy head is still having some problems. I think she feels OK now, she seems perkier and has regained all of her fire when I handle her- she is a vertical jumper! But she has lost a lot of hair around her eyes and mouth, and her skin is very irritated in those places, like a crispy sunburn. Her ears have developed deep, crusty fissures in the skin. So, this has me considering a different diagnosis now: facial eczema or FE.



I didn’t originally key on that possibility, because edema is only briefly mentioned as a symptom, and my impression is usually the swelling associated with FE is mild, not football-head-like. But this new set of symptoms sounds a lot more like FE, with the hair loss, sunburn, and fissured skin on the ears. The skin on her udder also seems subtly affected- I don’t remember such a contrast between her pink skin and dark black pigment before. The interior tissues of her udder feel supple- no mastitis; but the skin layer feels crispy, too, just like her facial skin. And there are a couple of peeling surface scabs.

Root Cause

Facial eczema is caused by consuming a fungus (Pithomyces chartarum) that thrives particularly well in perennial ryegrass. Ryegrass is one of the many species we have in our far pasture where the ewes have spent much of the springtime. The fungus is apparently common during warm and humid times; and also when the grass is cut and the decaying  “litter” is left behind, leaving an ideal environment for fungal growth. We have had both conditions in abundance this spring. Intensive rotational grazing is another factor, because the fungus lies close to the bases of grass plants, and animals graze closer to the ground in rotational grazing. The core manifestation of facial eczema is actually liver trauma. The symptoms of sun sensitivity and the resulting skin irritation are secondary, caused by unprocessed byproducts of chlorophyll breakdown traveling into the bloodstream.



The treatment for facial eczema is to first and foremost to get the sheep out of the ryegrass, to prevent any further exposure to the fungus and let the liver try to recover. The next step is to give the sheep some respite from the sun to help the secondary conditions. Then supportive treatments are called for, to help the liver, and to fight any infections resulting from the skin damage. Supposedly by the time you see the facial skin irritation stage, the sheep is quite progressed in the disease. Some sources advise feeding hay, to give the sheep a break from processing any additional chlorophyll; but I’m stopping short of this.

Presuming this new diagnosis is the best guess, I moved her into the reed canary grass pasture with the rams. There are virtually no other species of grass in that field, just a few broadleaf weeds. The grass is pretty tall, so they are only grazing the tops. There are also a few places where she can seek shade in that pasture, from the dog houses that the dogs don’t use. I hope she doesn’t get bred while in with the rams, but the combination of her unthrifty condition and the days still getting longer probably means she won’t.


The rams were a little too glad to see a single lady in their parlour. 😉 Though she is now rejoining her son in this group, she had to leave behind her ewelamb in the other pasture (I definitely don’t want her to get bred right now); so she spent some time pining at the gate and not joining the ram group. I hate to see more stress on her, but this seems the best choice, to get her on clean grass and near some shade, and let her at least have the company of other sheep, albeit overly amorous ones.

I’m using goldenseal on her irritated skin-it’s one of the few things I can put near her eyes. I’m also giving her vitamin B injections to support the liver. And I chose homeopathic silicea; for its relationship to deep-body healing, skin flare-ups and stubbornness. I have antibiotics on hand in case her skin infects badly, but won’t use them otherwise.

UdderRare Manifestation or Cause for Concern?

I still think this is highly odd that one sheep out of fifty is experiencing this disease, whatever it is. Apparently some sheep are genetically resistant to the fungus that causes facial eczema. So that could explain it, maybe our breed is mostly resistant, and this ewe is not.

But apparently sheep can also have a subclinical case, where the only symptoms you’ll see are poor growth, poor condition, and poor reproductive capability. This informational booklet, Facing Up to Facial Eczema, has thorough advice on the subject, which I found useful. I do still have one skinny yearling ewe from Montana which I cannot fatten despite several different experiments, and this is a new thing for me to wonder about with her.

Low zinc in the diet can apparently cause vulnerability. This is a challenge area for me, as our forage tests quite high in zinc, but it apparently binds with copper and iron, and we also have high iron (and reasonable amounts of copper, which I’m augmenting with more in supplemental form). There is extra zinc in my mineral supplement, as well as in the kelp they are getting. But who knows if they are getting enough, or enough that’s in a synthesizable form, with all of the interplay happening between these minerals?

The above-mentioned booklet also cites that extra dietary copper can worsen the conditions of this disease,  because, “Copper seems to activate sporidesmin toxin in the process of metabolism in the liver.” I feel I need the copper supplementation to help ward off foot rot, however. Of course this furthers my angst over what is the right combination of minerals for optimal health!