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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.


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

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