THE COUNTRY’S FAVOURITE FARMER GIVES US HIS MONTHLY GUIDE TO AGRICULTURE IN BRITAIN SHEEP DIPPING – A CHANGING PRACTICE
The ins and outs of sheep dipping: how has the practice changed over the years?
“The chemicals used in sheep dips have made the headlines”
Stored deep in the BBC archives is some longforgotten footage of a Cotswold farmer earnestly dipping sheep. The action was filmed almost 40 years ago for the BBC Two series In The Country. My dad Joe Henson was one of the presenters, and the hard-working shepherd was Robert Boodle.
Sheep dipping has rarely been seen on TV over the years. Unlike other milestones of the sheep farming year – tupping, lambing or shearing – the dipping of the livestock has always been a pretty mundane part of keeping a flock; the sheep are immersed in a chemical solution, what farm vets call a ‘medicated plunge’. It’s one of several options in a hugely important package of measures to keep the animals healthy and free from parasites such as the dreaded sheep scab. As Robert says in the ageing footage while he’s steering his flock through the liquid mixture, “the scab is very contagious. It’s a mite that lives in the inner ear of the sheep and then comes out in a scab later on.”
I think he was being polite – scab is a very painful condition. The mites feed on dead skin causing nasty inflammations and sores, and the more the animals try to scratch, rub and bite, the worse the problem becomes.
In some ways, that archived edition of In The Country is a record of changing times and practices. The autumn dip that was shown on the programme had already become voluntary when it was broadcast, and by the early 1990s it was no longer compulsory for sheep farmers to dip their flocks for parasite control at all. Today, solutions are poured on to the fleece to deal with lice, ticks and blowfly, making sheep dipping a fading task on the farm. Meanwhile, a range of injections to deal with sheep scab have proved popular with many farmers, removing their need to wrestle with reluctant sheep as they try to get them in and out of the dip.
A BREACH OF HEALTH
Over the past couple of decades, the chemicals used in sheep dips have made the headlines, for all the wrong reasons. Organophosphates (OPs) are highly toxic and there are numerous claims that using them causes headaches, lethargy, depression and chronic fatigue among humans. I have personal experience. I ended up in hospital for a week with suspected OP poisoning after cleaning out the sheep dip. I am now very sensitive if exposed to OP, so we steer well clear of it on the farm. Although the publicised cases go back as far as the 1970s when compulsory dipping was introduced, the issue was the subject of a Westminster Hall debate as recently as 2015. The Government insisted that low-level exposure to OPs didn’t lead to long-term health problems, and that there had been no cover-up about the dangers involved.
Despite the arguments, inside and outside parliament, OPs are still considered the most effective way of eradicating sheep scab by some farmers. The safeguards are far stricter now, however; anyone wanting to dip must undergo training, hold a certificate of competence, keep detailed records and wear regulation protective clothing. Sheep scab hasn’t gone away, but preventing it has changed enormously.
The sheep dip contains insecticides and fungicides used to combat external parasites