Why animals cause most injuries on farms


The death of a woman in Co Offaly shows how our farms have become more risky, writes Seán Mac Connell,Agriculture Correspondent

A week ago Margaret Fenton left her home at about 1.30pm in Doon, Co Offaly to return a dog to a neighbour. No one knows why she went into a field full of cattle, but she died some hours later at Portiuncula Hospital, Co Galway of injuries she sustained from the animals.

The alarm was raised when one of her beloved dogs returned to her home alone and her husband, Noel, a former radio officer, raised the alarm and found her injured in the field.

While not all the circumstances of her tragic death are fully known, it is believed Margaret was trampled by the cattle as she attempted to protect her dogs.

Most people would regard this accident as rare, but a closer examination of the facts indicate that this is not the case. A health and safety review of fatal accidents over the past five years found that machinery accounted for 45.5 per cent of deaths and livestock 12.5 per cent. In total, accidents on farms cause an average of 18 deaths each year.

However, the most recent Teagasc study of the 3,000 or so injuries recorded on farms annually indicates that livestock cause about 64 per cent of injuries and machinery only 12 per cent.

"Bulls get very bad press, but the truth is that the animal most likely to cause injury on the farm is the cow," says Teagasc's farm safety expert, Frank Laffey.

"Our research shows that most injuries are caused by cows at calving time, when animals are being loaded and unloaded or when animals are being rounded up for testing purposes," he says.

"We are doing a series of health and safety training courses for farmers and when we talk about the dangers from livestock, farmers ask us to get on to subjects such as chemicals and other dangers on the basis that they know animals," says Laffey.

"It stops them in their tracks when we point out that the majority of injuries, crushing, broken limbs, bruises and other injuries are caused by stock. That figure is nearly two thirds of all farm injuries," he says.

He said that the number of deaths and injuries from cattle has increased as a result of changes in farming practices and the advent of part-time farming.

"We have noticed a rise in the number of deaths and injuries among older people," he says. Irecent years, half of those deaths were of people over 65 years. Margaret Fenton, for instance, was in her 70s.

"Because the younger farmers now tend to have off-farm jobs, sometimes the older farmer is given the task of feeding and looking at stock and many are not up to it. We also have new breeds of animals which have come in from the continent and they appear to be more temperamental than our native breeds. We are doing research into this issue at Grange, Co Meath," says Laffey.

Prof Michael Monaghan, of the veterinary faculty in University College Dublin, agrees that the increase in part-time farming has meant there is less contact between cattle and humans than in the past.

"This has meant that cattle are a lot wilder than in the past, and I have seen it myself in recent years on my own farm in animals I have purchased," he says. "Some of them are very wild and bear no resemblance at all to animals I purchased locally which had been bucket reared and were very easy to handle. Vets who are in large animal practice say it is becoming more and more difficult to handle animals on farms because of the lack of human contact, and this is a major problem now. We also have new breeds that are less domesticated than our traditional breeds and, of course, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of suckler (beef) herds where the mother and calf are left in the fields," says Monaghan. "The bottom line is that the time is long over when anyone should go into a field full of cattle and not realise the risk they are taking. All livestock are dangerous."

Séamus Boland, the chief executive of the Irish Rural Link Organisation, says he recently got a scare from the animals on his own farm not far from where the fatal accident occurred.

"I walked casually into the field and suddenly I found myself surrounded by the cattle, which had run at myself and the dog. I had a bit of a stick but I had to be quite aggressive to drive them off," he says.

Boland, who also farms part time, says he had to concede that livestock seemed to be getting wilder for a number of reasons.

"There has been a huge growth in the number of suckler herds, and up until about 15 years ago even small holders produced some milk for the creamery and bucket reared their calves," he says. "That day is over and most animals are reared by their mothers, and we have always known down in rural Ireland never to get between a mother and her calf."

Like Margaret Fenton, Boland also had a dog with him and he believes that the cattle got agitated by its presence and began to stampede.

The view that farm animals are becoming more dangerous is also shared by veteran farm adviser Frank Young, who lives and works in the Athlone area.

"Time is the main enemy these days and it is impossible to give livestock the same kind of attention they got in the past," he says. "Everyone should be aware of the potential danger from cattle and no one should go into a field where there are animals without knowing what they are doing.

"A lot of things can trigger cattle to behave aggressively, and the public should be aware of this. It could be as simple as the heat or the presence of another animal such as a dog," he says. "With changing farming practices and new breeds which are not as docile as our native ones, I would urge extreme caution."