Country Matters: Out of our depth in a nasty concoction

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The Independent Online
FOR years we have dreaded the autumn ordeal of dipping the sheep. Although our flock is small, the ritual has always been traumatic for humans and beasts alike: for the sheep because they hate being plunged out of their depth into murky water, and for us because the organophosphorus compound used to control the skin parasite scab is extremely unpleasant to handle.

Until recently farmers were under orders from the Ministry of Agriculture to dip sheep twice a year. Then the requirement came down to once a year, but the ministry's instructions have always been backed up by threats: anyone failing to dip would be liable to prosecution and a fine.

Now, suddenly, everything has changed. This week we received a leaflet from Maff headed in large red letters, 'USE SHEEP-DIPS CAREFULLY]' Under this lurid banner it said: 'Before you decide to dip, ask yourself: Is it necessary to dip the sheep? What treatments present the least risk to the user?'

A second leaflet gave instructions on the safe use of organophosphorus dips. We should wear 'non-lined, synthetic rubber gloves . . . Wellington boots, waterproof trousers or leggings and waterproof coat or bib-apron . . . and a face-shield when handling the concentrate'. We should wash splashes of concentrate immediately from skin and eyes, remove heavily contaminated clothing and wash or destroy it.

There followed some paragraphs of medical advice: 'Cases of heavy contamination should be treated as an emergency and the patient taken straight to hospital . . . severe poisoning can cause general muscle twitching and convulsions.' To all of which, we said: 'Thanks a lot]'

Accustomed as we are to U-turns by government bodies, it is nevertheless a shock to find a ministry doing a complete volte-face, in a matter of life and death, without apology or explanation. Scab has not disappeared: although it is fairly well suppressed, the threat of infestation still exists.

The truth is that although the exceptionally dangerous nature of organophosphorus compounds has been known to Maff for more than 40 years, the ministry has persisted in ordering farmers to use them. Only now, as independent investigations start bringing the results of this policy to light, has it cravenly changed course.

Even if you only have 20 or 30 sheep to dip, as we do, it is almost impossible to avoid being splashed and soaked during the operation. Our tank holds 150 gallons of water and needs just over one litre of compound to make a solution of the correct strength. The neat chemical is dark brown and treacly, and the slightest sniff of it is enough to give one a headache. Once it goes into the water, the solution turns cloudy, like milky coffee, and gives off a strong smell, partly of tar, but with something infinitely more vicious in the background.

Sheep do not walk the plank into this stuff willingly: they have to be corralled into a narrowing funnel of fences, and then propelled over the edge of the abyss. As they plunge in, gouts of liquid shoot into the air. A second person must be on duty at the other end of the bath to make sure that each sheep goes right under and then scrabbles safely up the ridged ramp. The moment an animal is clear of the water, it gives a vigorous shake, sending up a cloud of drops all round it. The runways at either end of the bath are soon awash, and nobody involved can keep dry.

Protective clothing is all very well, but it is also extremely hot. A big ewe may easily weigh 150lbs, and when she is frightened, it takes no mean physical effort to coerce her into the deep end, particularly if she stages a lie-down strike. Even in cool weather one is soon pouring with sweat - and this in itself can make one careless or indifferent to minor wettings. I cannot remember a year when my wife and I escaped without being splashed by the oily brown solution.

Obviously it would be better to use some less dangerous chemical, but until now considerations of price have ruled this out. The regular compound now costs about pounds 40 for a five-litre can, but a safer, 'green label' version is prohibitively expensive at pounds 55 for a single litre.

How we have escaped serious harm, I am not sure. It is even possible that we are in trouble without knowing it, for the damage done by organophosphorus is cumulative. The truth is that for years Maff has been forcing us, and thousands of farmers with far larger flocks, to use chemicals that are highly dangerous.

Now a damning body of evidence on the effects of organophosphorus compounds has been amassed by Elizabeth Sigmund, who runs the South West Environmental Protection Agency in Cornwall. On her files she has the cases of more than 220 farmers from all over Britain who appear to have suffered permanent neurological damage caused by sheep-dip.

As she says, their stories are heart-breaking. The lucky ones have nothing worse than impaired control over hands, feet and legs. The less fortunate are so weak that they cannot work or even walk: some are in wheelchairs, some in mental hospitals with loss of memory, some on the verge of suicide. Marriages are in ruins from the strain of trying to grapple with an affliction that is so poorly understood.

One of the most conspicuous and courageous sufferers is the Countess of Mar, who has been pursuing the matter in the House of Lords. A farmer in Worcestershire, she had liquid from a sheep-dip spill into her boot four years ago. Within a couple of weeks she had been smitten by headaches, exhaustion, depression and general muscular pain. Worse, her speech and vision began to disintegrate. Only after doctors had told her that she might have shingles or ME (chronic fatigue syndrome), or that it was 'all in the mind', did she discover that she had the classic symptoms of organophosphorus poisoning.

What seems strange to amateurs such as myself is that these vicious chemicals are not as bad for sheep as they are for humans. A partial answer is that organophosporus agents work on enzymes, and that sheep have different enzyme- systems. All the same, there is growing evidence that sheep have been affected, and that (for example) bones in their legs may fracture spontaneously.

On Thursday, Mrs Sigmund challenged the Minister for Agriculture, John Gummer, to set up neurological testing of the farmers on her files. She also demanded that he arranges compensation for victims of organophosphorus poisoning, that he brings down the price of safer dipping compounds, and that he changes the law to facilitate other methods of controlling scab, among them injections.

Mr Gummer is already on record as saying that if proof is brought to him that organophosphorus dips do inflict serious damage to human operators, he will ban them immediately. To an outsider, it is deplorable that he will not accept the evidence that already exists. If he introduced a ban at 9am on Monday morning, it would not be a minute too soon.