Heart attacks, ME, depression - many British farmers believe their health has been ruined because they followed regulations designed to protect their sheep. Roger Dobson reports
It was a scorching summer's day in June on the farm in Great Witley. The sheep had been rounded up and were being driven down the gentle slope of a green pasture, past the coppice where felled wood was drying out for the coming winter, and on towards the distant cluster of farm buildings.

At the end of the trail, the sheep, more than 100 of them, were herded into pens and then, one by one, passed through a trough filled with liquid. Each was kept in the strong-smelling potion of chemicals and disinfectant for exactly a minute.

As the dipping progressed, the liquid, whose TCP-like smell was eye-wateringly strong in the hot, still air, frequently overflowed on to the feet of the farmworkers as the animals struggled to get out. As each sheep emerged, it shook its head and fleece vigorously, showering droplets of liquid over the surrounding men and women.

In the heat of the sun, it was a tough, rough, sweaty job, but the law required that the sheep on the Countess of Mar's 140- acre farm at Great Witley, Worcestershire, and in 90,000 other flocks around Britain, be dipped twice a year to stop the spread of disease. This process of dipping, carried out in June and again in the autumn, was for years as common an image of rural Britain as hay-making and ploughing.

That afternoon in 1989, hours after the dip had finished at Great Witley, Lady Mar, 54, who had been working the sheep with her husband, began to feel ill. She had a runny nose, she felt disoriented and dizzy and found it a tremendous effort to walk any distance. She didn't know at the time, but what she had was sheep-dippers' flu. In those days these symptoms were almost an accepted fact of life on a sheep farm: a dip in the morning meant flu in the afternoon.

It was not until three years ago that reports of far more sinister side- effects began to emerge from farmers who had handled the organophosphate pesticides (OPs) used in sheep dips. It was about this time that Lady Mar realised that the illness she has suffered since 1989 was caused by exposure to OPs. They are from the same family of compounds developed in Nazi Germany as agents to attack the nervous system and contain the same chemical as the nerve gas sarin, used in the attack on the Tokyo underground earlier this year.

From 1976 until 1992, dipping of the 44 million sheep in Britain was compulsory. The most widely used liquids in these dips were OPs. In some rural communities, especially in Wales, Yorkshire and Scotland, dipping was almost a social occasion, with neighbouring farmers helping each other out. Each flock would be dipped on a rota and as the men and women worked on the dip, the children played in the fields.

"Everyone had to dip; it was part of farming," explains Lady Mar, who helped with the dipping for five years before becoming ill. "I was what they called the paddler, the one with the hooked stick who ducks the sheep at the front. It was hard work and you got splashed quite a bit, but everybody got involved. Once the dip overflowed into my wellington boots but we never thought it could be really dangerous, never."

Since 1989, she has suffered fatigue and muscular pain, followed by bouts of nightmares, sweating and chest pains as well as suspected changes in her central nervous system which have slowed down her reactions, including her speech.

Lady Mar is one of several hundred farmers who have reported ill health as a result of using OPs to control sheep scab. The scale of the problem - more than 500 farmers now claim to have been harmed - is the subject of a major conference involving the National Farmers' Union and the British Medical Association tomorrow.

Farmers believe that the Ministry of Agriculture is deliberately covering up its failure to recognise sooner the real dangers of handling OPs. Gary Coomber, a 32-year-old Kent farmer, suffered a serious heart attack three years ago, a direct result, he believes, of four years spent using OP sheep dips. His lawyers have issued a writ, not yet served, against two manufacturers, alleging that the use of their products damaged his health.

"I am very angry about what has happened to me," he says. "The OPs have damaged the nerves controlling my heart rhythm. To wake up on a hospital bed and see your family around you, knowing you almost died, is devastating."

"I am bitter about this,"echoes Lady Mar, "because I think the Ministry are trying to cover up their tracks and say it's not their fault, but they have known since the Fifties how dangerous these things are."

Dr Goran Jamal, consultant neurophysiologist at Glasgow's Southern General Hospital, is one of Europe's leading experts on OPs and a member of the Government's advisory panel on their use. He has found evidence of peripheral nervous system damage affecting the nerves to the arms and legs causing numbness, pins and needles, fatigue, unusual reactions to hot and cold sensations and loss of power in limbs. "We believe it was due to long- term exposure to OPs," he says. Similarly, Elizabeth Sigmund, of the South West Environmental Protection Agency, has collated data on 300 farmers. She says several dozen have had severe heart problems and other conditions as a result of the OP dips."These people's lives have been ruined," she says.

While the Ministry of Agriculture says the decision to de-regulate in 1992 was based on the fact that dipping had not eradicated scab and was unlikely to do so, the farmers tell a different story. They maintain that compulsory dipping was stopped because the alarming side-effects were coming to light, hence the Health and Safety Executive's recent introduction of stringent conditions for those who still want to use OPs. Since April this year, no one has been able to buy OP dips unless they have obtained a certificate of competence. To get that certificate, farmers have to sit a one-and-a-half hour test paper under exam conditions, complete a form outlining their dipping plans, and show they know how to select the right treatment and how to store and dispose of the chemicals.

Many farmers also believe the action has come too late. They are angered by the HSE's latest information pamphlet and its belated admission of the dangers of OPs. The pamphlet urges farmers to use protective clothing, train staff and report all incidents and illnesses. "Make sure you monitor your employees and your own health to ensure that adverse affects are detected promptly before anyone becomes seriously ill."

It adds that serious poisoning can result in extreme difficulty in breathing and convulsions without medical treatment, something farmers now know only too well. The requirements to wear gloves, face-masks and protective clothing are unsuitable for the job, say farmers. Exasperated, they point out that thick plastic gloves are not practical for dealing with sheep when they are slippery and wet or recently shorn.

"The Government has tried to blame farmers for not following instructions," says Aberdeen farmer Ian Alcock, 60, who is winding down activities on his 500-acre holding because he has ME, which he blames on nearly two decades of dipping. "That is absolute nonsense. I have a label from 1991 which does not even mention wearing gloves, for example. I think there have been deliberate attempts to mislead."

OPs not only cause horrifying physical damage, they wreak emotional trauma on entire families. Burdened by loneliness and red tape, farmers commit suicide at a rate of more than two a week and, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, there have been at lease 1,253 farm suicides since 1979. It is believed that exposure to pesticides and other chemicals is a further cause of depression which may in turn lead to suicide.

The problems on Teresa Layton's Llwyngwilliam Farm in mid Wales began in 1989 when her husband, David, 47, who had been dipping since 1976, returned from one dipping complaining of severe back pains. He soon developed numbness in one leg and had problems with balance. Three years later, he was diagnosed as having MS. Her three sons, then aged between 12 and 17, used to handle the sheep after dipping when the fleeces were still contaminated. They have all since suffered dizziness, ME, weight loss, memory lapses, loss of co-ordination and headaches.

"I have no doubt at all that dipping caused the ill health in my family," says Mrs Layton, "and I am very angry about it. Farming should be a healthy occupation. It is strange to be in a situation where a component of regulations imposed to improve stock has caused such problems. What has happened has devastated my family."

Lady Mar, one of the many farmers attending tomorrow's conference, says that all farmers now want is a diagnosis of what is wrong with them and suitable treatment. "We have to work to that, but we also have to remember and think very hard about the legacy we are leaving our children and grandchildren as a result of using these chemicals for so long."