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Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
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‘I lost eight cattle over a short period’ – farmer on lead poisoning

Cattle farmers are being urged to inspect fields for lead sources such as old batteries and machinery before turning cattle out to pasture to minimise the risk of lead poisoning.

Lead is a highly toxic metal causing nervous disease, blindness, infertility and even death.

Lead poisoning mainly affects cattle and sheep, with young cattle most at risk due to their curious nature.

Not only do the livestock suffer due to poisoning, but incidents can also have substantial financial implications for farmers.

The number of on-farm incidents usually peak in spring when animals are put out to pasture.

The primary sources of lead on-farm are:
  • Lead batteries;
  • Electric fencing batteries;
  • Lead shot;
  • Burnt-out cars;
  • Lead paint tins;
  • Bonfire ash lead;
  • Lead flashing;
  • Flaking lead paint;
  • Lead in soil;
  • Old lead mine workings;
  • Lead piping.
Chronic/later symptoms:
  • Anaemia;
  • Lameness;
  • Foetal deformities;
  • Infertility.
  • Animal deaths, carcass disposal and veterinary fees;
  • Slower or stunned animal growth;
  • Increased birth defects and infertility;
  • Loss of market value and decreased production;
  • Minimum 16-week withdrawal period causes delays in sending animals to market and additional costs for blood tests.

In some cases, it is believed fly-tipping has been responsible for incidents.

Food Standards Scotland (FSS) has launched a new on-farm incident prevention campaign urging farmers to be aware of lead sources on their land, which could cause poisoning amongst their livestock.

The move comes following the number of lead poisoning incidents reported to the organisation in 2020, amounting to more than those in 2018 and 2019 combined.

Last year, FSS dealt with ten lead poisoning incidents on Scottish farms, resulting in the deaths of 18 cattle and the temporary restriction of 318 animals.

Furthermore, there were four reported incidents in 2018 and three in 2019, which resulted in the death of ten cattle and the temporary restriction of 158 animals in the years combined.

Its food crime and incidents team has investigated several on-farm incidents over the past three years. These include copper poisoning, veterinary medicine residues and livestock theft, but lead incidents are the most common.

One farmer’s experience

Steven Barron of Barron Findowrie Ltd in Angus said: “I would urge all farmers to take heed of advice from Food Standards Scotland and lookout for signs of lead on their land.”

“In my case, I lost eight cattle over a short period in 2020. Two batteries were found in the field which had been dumped by fly-tippers.”

“The animals affected suffered greatly with symptoms including grinding teeth, bobbing head, frothing at mouth, muscle tremors, and some collapsed as their calves tried to feed.”

“Some animals were still feeling the effects of the poisoning weeks after with one cow unable to feed its calf and concerns about its fertility, which is a potential disaster for a cattle breeding herd.”

Check fields carefully

Scotland’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Sheila Voas, added:

“Lead poisoning causes severe health and welfare problems for affected animals as well as distress to those involved in caring for them and significant financial losses.”

“As we approach turnout time, I would urge all farmers to check their fields carefully, including for possible sources of lead and to remove them before turnout.”

“I would also like to remind members of the public that fly-tipping can have devastating consequences on animal health as perhaps those responsible have not considered that aspect of it when choosing to dump rubbish.”

You can find more farming tips here.

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