Farm fears: is it safe for kids to pet animals on open farms?


Open farms, where children can have contact with animals, are popular during the summer. But should we be warier of E.coli and other potential hazards?

THE SIGHTS, sounds and smells of the open farm make it one of the most popular summer holiday activities. For children the biggest attraction is the opportunity for close contact with the animals, whether that means bottle-feeding a frisky lamb, leaning over a pen to watch a nursing sow, or gently cupping a day-old yellow chick in their hands.

It’s a heart-warming, educational and – with the right precautions on the part of parents, teachers and farm owners – safe experience. But a new report into safety on open farms in Britain indicates that there isn’t sufficient public awareness about the potential dangers involved.

The independent inquiry into Britain’s biggest farm outbreak of O157 strain E.coli, on Godstone Farm, Surrey, late last summer found that more must be done to protect children from infection. The consequences of the Godstone outbreak were severe: 93 people in total fell ill, 27 were admitted to hospital, and 17 – all of them children – suffered kidney failure. Some of those may need a kidney transplant as a result. Following the publication of the report, lawyers representing 28 of the victims are preparing to demand substantial damages in a group legal action.

Despite press speculation, Prof George Griffin, the author of the report, stopped short of banning children from petting animals on farms.

Insisting that it was “perfectly possible” to minimise exposure to animal faeces containing E.coli, he said that “if you took [that argument] to its logical extent you would stop people walking in the country”.

Most of the recommendations appear to be simple common sense. Plentiful warning signs, proper handwashing facilities and close supervision of young children should go a long way towards keeping youngsters safe. Griffin also says that animal feed should not be sold in paper bags, which split easily, causing children to get their fingers dirty.

The good news is that, while there have been over 100 instances of E.coli infection on UK open or petting farms, there have been no confirmed outbreaks of E.coli in the Republic to date. However, in 2008 an E.coli alert led to the brief voluntary closure of an open farm near Belfast.

The largely clean bill of health suggests farmers, parents and teachers here are doing something right. But there’s no room for complacency. Ann Redhouse, of Newgrange Farm in Co Meath, travelled to England to meet with Prof Griffin’s team to discuss best practice on open farms. She was relieved that their main recommendation – to divide the eating and animal handling areas – was already in place at Newgrange.

The other recommendation was the introduction of a special hand steriliser at the entrance to the farm. “It’s the kind of stuff you get in hospitals: it kills 99 per cent of bugs, and it acts for three or four hours. It’s very expensive – we’ve already got through €700 worth of sanitiser – but these are some of the sensible precautions you need to take.”

Prof Griffin’s report found that on some British farms, animal bedding pens were layered up with hay and were only emptied every three months. He says they should be cleared out every one or two days. Noreen Kennedy, of Kennedy’s Pet Farm in Killarney, one of the first petting farms to open in Ireland, says that in summer the pens should be cleaned out and disinfected at least every day, sometimes even more frequently. “We take hygiene very seriously. It’s something you’re always conscious of, and prevention is better than cure.”

Such is the dread of an E.coli outbreak, some open-farm owners have an almost superstitious aversion to talking about it. As one owner put it, “mentioning E.coli and our farm in the same sentence would be business suicide for us”.

Others are frustrated with experts such as British bacteriologist Prof Hugh Pennington, who has made no secret of his reservations about letting under-fives touch animals on farms. Prof Pennington says he “would be very cautious about taking them somewhere there are cattle and sheep and goats. These are high-risk animals, and children are the risky victims because they are going to have the hardest time if infected.”

So where does the balance of responsibility lie between parents, carers or teachers, and the farm owners themselves? “I have no qualms giving visitors a safety leaflet saying that there are germs on this farm,” says one farm owner from the North, who did not want to be named.

“The last thing we want is for people to get sick – that’s a disaster for us. But the adults have to play their part. We have signs up everywhere saying ‘adults please help’, because small children in particular do need assistance.”

Using an appropriately agricultural metaphor, John Toner of Glenroe Farm in Co Wicklow, says “you can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. We have a responsibility to minimise risk, with signs about handwashing and so on, but parents have a responsibility too. That said, you can go overboard with these things, put up barriers and not allow the children access. But most parents want their children to have access to animals in a safe way.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests some parents aren’t fully aware of the risks. “I was shocked when I took my kids to our local open farm,” says mother of two Sian Dorrian. “There were plenty of signs about hand-washing up, hand sanitiser everywhere, but you could see that some parents just weren’t bothering to make sure their kids were cleaning up after touching the animals. I saw a two-year-old girl drop her soother near some mucky hay in the petting area, pick it up, and stuff it back in her mouth. The mother didn’t even notice. You can’t blame farms if parents aren’t paying attention.”

Others believe that the reverse is true – that when it comes to children we’ve become far too risk-averse, raising a generation of fearful, pampered pets with under-stimulated immune systems. Such views often come from an older generation who relish their memories of munching carrots straight from the ground with barely a wipe.

Practising vet and veterinary journalist Pete Wedderburn, who’s based in Co Wicklow, says it’s important to remember the huge benefits that young people get from contact with animals.

“This is an age where kids are more familiar with their computer keyboard than with touching animals, and that’s a big deficit in their lives. As a vet student, I once took a pet lamb into the local public park in Edinburgh where schoolchildren wanted to know what breed of dog it was. Is this the level of familiarity that we want our future population of adults to have with the countryside?”

So the message is: by all means let your kids feed the lambs, stroke the goats and cuddle the chicks – but don’t forget to give those grubby little fingers a thorough scrubbing afterwards.

The open farm How to stay safe

  • Avoid letting animals come in contact with your face.
  • Eat only in designated areas.
  • Wash and dry hands after contact with animals or animal feed and before eating and drinking.
  • Ensure that children’s hand washing is supervised by adults.
  • Ensure that children under the age of five are very closely supervised in the presence of any animals.
  • Avoid eating anything off the ground.
  • Avoid putting fingers in your mouth or in the mouths of animals.
  • Only feed animals under supervision from a farm worker.
  • Pregnant women should avoid handling sheep or lambs

– Source: HSE Health Protection Surveillance Centre