A major motorway had to be closed after a flock of sheep almost drowned when they fell into a freezing river.
RSPCA officers, Highways England workers and firefighters staged a spent almost four hours dragging the sheep out.
A lorry driver was stunned when he spotted 16 sheep packed into a river on the M1 near Watford, Herts.
He called the rescuers, who sped down to the river on December 12 and managed to save nine of the 16 sheep.
The RSPCA waded into the water with specialist equipment while two firefighters used an inflatable slide on the bank.
Crew members waited at the side of the river with blankets to keep the sheep warm – while others checked for injuries..
Animal collection officer Kate Wright said: “The only access to the sheep was the motorway hard shoulder – so we called in officers from Highways England to help.
“We also requested assistance from Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service and a crew from Garston Blue Watch and the Hatfield Water Rescue Team came to help.”
“Sadly, seven of the ewes had already perished in the cold, deep water but officers managed to pull nine out of the river alive.
“It was so upsetting that some of the sheep had died but I’m so pleased we were able to save nine lives.
She added: “Thank goodness the lorry driver spotted these stricken sheep and called us for help or they all would have died.
“The sheep all had sodden fleeces so were extremely heavy to pull out of the river, many of them were struggling to keep their heads above the water.
“Sheep had access to the river for their water source but there were a lot of overgrown reeds at the edge so we believe they may have mistaken it for riverbank and fallen in.”
RSPCA officer Pete Warne said: “Had we not have got there when we did I’m certain they wouldn’t have survived in the water for much longer.
“Some of the sheep made fairly quick recoveries and soon returned to grazing in the field but some were very weak and completely exhausted so we kept them wrapped in blankets for longer and did our best to rub them dry.
“This goes to show how important it is for farmers and livestock keepers to check on their animals regularly – the water was freezing.
“The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs code of practice for livestock say they should be checked at least once a day.”
A spokesman for Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue said: “We are happy to assist in animal rescues when we are available and able to do so.
“Our firefighters have the training and the specialist equipment and sometimes we are the only organisation who can safely rescue animals in distress.”