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Advice published warns of the dangers of on-farm lead poisoning incidents

By David Porter

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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.

Dumped car batteries are a potential source of lead poisioning
Dumped car batteries are a potential source of lead poisioning

The move follows 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.

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.

The FSS food crime and incidents team has investigated a number of on-farm incidents over the past three years, including copper poisoning, veterinary medicine residues and livestock theft, but incidents related to lead are the most common.

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

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

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

The number of on-farm incidents usually peak in Spring when animals are put out to pasture, but reports of poisonings occur throughout the year.

The main sources of lead on farm are from electric batteries, flaking lead paint or bonfire ash. In some cases it is believed fly tipping has been responsible for incidents.

Steven Barron, of Barron Findowrie Ltd in Angus, said: “I would urge all farmers to take heed of advice from Food Standards Scotland and look out 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.”

Food Standards Scotland’s Head of Food Crime and Incidents Unit, Ron McNaughton, said: “We have now received ten incident reports since April 2020 caused by lead exposure and poisoning, which is three more than in 2018 and 2019 combined.

“We have had no reports of illness as a result of lead on-farm incidents, however lead contamination found beyond legal limits in meat, offal or milk being sold to consumers may put them at risk and would be unlawful.

“Lead poisoning can also be costly for farmers, through animal deaths, disposing of carcasses, veterinary fees, increased birth defects, loss of market value, decreased production, and delays in sending animals to market.

“To minimise the risk of lead contamination, we are asking farmers across the country to check fields and barns regularly for sources of lead such as old batteries and machinery, and also watch out for fly tipping.

“If you suspect lead exposure, remove the source immediately, stop livestock access and seek veterinary advice.”

Food Standards Scotland has produced an information leaflet for farmers to help prevent on-farm incidents involving lead and copper poisoning, veterinary medicine residues and livestock theft.

Chief vet Sheila Voas
Chief vet Sheila Voas

Scotland’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Sheila Voas added: m“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 haven’t considered that aspect of it when choosing to dump rubbish.”

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