When the only way out is a shotgun: Isolation and financial pressures are driving many farmers to suicide. Andrew Morgan reports on the despair that lurks in rural Britain

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Indy Lifestyle Online
BRIAN, a Shropshire farmer, can recall with surprising clarity the morning last January when he blew off much of his face with a shotgun in an attempt to commit suicide. A combination of events took Brian into a barn on his farm on the Shropshire-Wales border: mounting problems on his land, the sudden death of his wife and the fear that he would be forced to sell up.

To the outsider, Shropshire, with its round hills and fields separated by ancient hedges, appears an area of assured contentment. But last year, 27 of the 40 suicides in the county were farmers. This year's figures for Shropshire are expected to be about the same. Suicides among farmers are also high in Devon, Cornwall and mid- Wales - all areas where subsidy cuts have hit hard, while interest rates have risen on land bought for a high price 20 years ago. Nationally, the suicide rate for farmers is roughly one each day, and on the rise, with the increase attributed to diminishing returns and increasing isolation.

Brian did not talk to anyone about his problems. On 13 January, at about six in the morning, he nestled the barrel of the gun under his chin after inserting a single cartridge and pulled the trigger. Instead of blowing his head off, the shot went upwards and exited near his nose. It destroyed his lower jaw, smashed all his teeth and mouth, as well as his nose, and took an inch off his tongue.

'I recall putting my hand up to my face and realising most of it had gone. I thought: 'I can't let anybody see me like this.' ' Wanting to finish the job, he staggered 400 yards to a treacherous stretch of the River Severn and threw himself in. But he could not drown.

The current took him to the bank and he pulled himself out, the cold congealing the remains of his face. 'I must have stayed there for a couple of hours, watching the day break over the fields, white with frost,' he recalls. 'In the end, my collie, Sam, found me and I crawled back to the house, my hands covered with blood.'

A neighbour found him in the kitchen - his teenage sons were kept out. The emergency services wanted to take him out by helicopter but were prevented by power lines. Instead, an ambulance took him to a Shrewsbury hospital where three surgeons rebuilt his face in a nine-hour operation. When his brother and sister-in-law visited, he wrote them a note: 'I am so stupid.'

Nowadays, Brian stays with his brother on his farm near Shrewsbury, still unable to return to his own farm near Welshpool. 'I felt such a fool - and still do, but it seems to have released much of the depression,' he adds. 'I actually feel glad to be alive.'

Brian's first wife died in June 1990, after 22 years of marriage, following an illness lasting just three days. The quiet of the farmhouse haunted him and the isolation deepened at social events when husbands-and-wives is the country norm.

'Farms are obviously isolated and it was gruelling not having the person I'd faced so many problems with. Absent-mindedly, after her death, I would often walk up to the house and shout for help with the sheep. Then it dawned that nobody was there.'

The initial problems were a pounds 50,000 life insurance demand - not finally paid off until after he shot himself. At the same time, the bank froze his overdraft and was charging huge interest rates. For 12 months, he lived from hand to mouth. He was unable to confide his fears and depression to his family. 'I kept it all to myself - that's the country way. Not admitting you need help.'

Six months after his wife's death, he met his second wife, who was working for a bank in London. After their marriage last October, they continued to live apart, meeting up at weekends. 'Working a farm needs somebody around all the time, really.'

As a farmer, Brian had a good reputation and kept 800 sheep and cattle on 300 acres. But last autumn, he began to lose concentration, missing good market times and becoming overstocked for his fixed milk quota. Depression overtook him. He feared he was at risk of prosecution under new pollution regulations for which he would face an outlay of pounds 55,000 for new tanks and drainage pipes.

The farmhouse needed re

roofing after gales. Towards last Christmas his misery deepened. 'I was afraid of going bust and having to hold a farm sale. What would the other farmers think of me?' he says. 'From Christmas onwards, I could have killed myself at any time.'

His first attempt was made on 12 January, despite his family having removed all of his guns. His cowman was unwell and he was faced with doing the milking and lambing single-handedly. 'It seemed that nobody understood and there was no way out.'

One gun remained, though without a butt. He placed it near his chin. But the shot merely burnt his cheek and blew a hole in the barn roof - unheard by his wife and two sons inside the house. Brian simply applied some cream, telling nobody. That evening his wife returned to London and he worked until the early hours. He spent a couple of hours in bed and then got up, found the gun and, this time, blew off his face.

As he lay in the hospital bed, his face held together by metal rods, barriers with his family came down. 'I remember my brother kissing me on the forehead when he visited me, which had never happened before,' he says. His wife stayed in the hospital with him, but they subsequently separated. For his sister-in-law, and others, the first feeling was guilt, but family support has been solid. 'Before, there wasn't too much we could do until asked - and he was too proud for that,' she says.

After some soul-searching, knowing the reticence of the community, Brian decided to tell his story to encourage other farmers to confide in their families, or in counsellors. 'Or in other farmers who have been through the same problems.'

Clifford Evans, past county chairman of the National Farmers Union, is now at the heart of a campaign co-ordinated by the local community council in Shropshire, to alert farmers to help lines and counselling services. 'People are desperate for help,' he says.

Some attribute the high rate of suicide in Shropshire's farming community to the pressure of being seen as a good farmer: the 'proud Salopian' is a local folk image and standards in Shropshire are high. Local farmers going bust usually claim they are leaving the business 'for health reasons'.

Many Shropshire farmers own their land and fear failing to pass it on to their sons. 'The community is very traditional,' says Mr Evans. 'Farms are often in families for centuries, unlike areas such as East Anglia, where pension funds often own them.'

Despite being close-knit, Shropshire farmers, like farmers in other rural areas, have a deep culture of keeping emotions in check when the going gets tough. Last year, one was faced with the prospect of having to sack several labourers. He refused to do it and decided to commit suicide, but he did not want to leave his wife with all the financial worries. One morning last January, he shot her in the back before turning the gun on himself.

In May the Shropshire area health authority handed out 20,000 leaflets at the county show, featuring numbers for Citizens Advice Bureaux, the Samaritans and Confide, an independent counselling service.

Cary Nares, of Shropshire health authority, says suicide levels peak in spring; this year there were 49 attempts in March and 71 in April, many of them taking place in Shropshire's rural areas.

'People don't kill themselves at the bottom of depression but when they are coming out of it,' says Ms Nares. 'Then they have the energy, realise how desperate their problems have been and don't want to sink so low again.'

Mr Evans believes isolation has grown, the result of reductions in milk lorry pick-ups, school closures, and the replacement of locals by commuters or retired people. 'Those with time to chat have largely gone,' he says. 'And some older people don't always appreciate the pressures on young farmers.' Vets and shopkeepers, even animal-feed salesmen, are now being alerted to watch for signs of despair among farmers. Men who are vulnerable because of family tragedies are under benign surveillance.

Ann Bromley, a Confide counsellor and the wife of a Shropshire farmer, says: 'In each suicide, there appears to be a factor - not always a tragedy - that breaks the camel's back. It may be a letter from a bank, or other professional source, which is the trigger.

'It's a farmer's own perception of reality that can be his downfall. If a man thinks there's no future for him, that's when it's dangerous.'

At present Adas - the Government's farming advisory service - charges for visits to farms. But Clifford Evans is calling for free sessions to advise farmers on whether to specialise or pack up. 'It's far cheaper than paying for a farmer in hospital.'

Brian, 45, now on a course of plastic surgery, eventually wants to return to his farm, which is being overseen by his elder son and brother.

'Slowly, I'm learning to laugh again,' he says. ' If you can laugh at life, you're probably going to be all right.'

(Photograph omitted)