Jeremy Clarke finds his Constable table mats dripping with the blood of farm-handsby Jeremy Clarke / August 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in August 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
Visiting the Royal Agricultural Show, as I did this year for three whole days, you get the impression that farmers are up against it. Statistics available in the Samaritans’ tent, for example, indicate that farmers are twice as likely to commit suicide as the rest of us. Samaritans were patrolling the site day and night in a “mobile befriending unit,” offering support to farmers who were thinking about topping themselves while visiting the show. Conspicuous, too, was the stand publicising the work of the mental health charity Mind. This year it called a press conference to trumpet RuralMinds, its nationwide initiative designed to reach out to psychotic farmers living in isolated communities. (On closer inspection this turned out to be the creation of a mere two jobs in the West Midlands with a budget of ?136,000.) The state funded Health and Safety Executive also held a press conference to draw attention to the plight of our farmers. Inside a cheerful, yellow-striped marquee, before a large audience of agricultural journalists, HM Chief Agricultural Inspector David Mattey made a speech in which he announced that during the last fiscal year, 63 farmers were killed in fatal accidents at work. “The Grim Reaper,” said Mattey, glancing down at his notes, “has cut a great swathe with his scythe and harvested a tragic and irreplaceable crop.” This extravagant metaphor momentarily raised the exhilarating possibility that Mattey may have been drinking; but he failed to live up to this early promise, delivering the rest of his speech with a blandness which very nearly concealed his department’s embarrassment that this year’s death toll is 40 per cent higher than last year’s-and the highest for ten years. What Mat- tey found so insupportable about this statistic was the financial burden these deaths placed on the agricultural industry as a whole. He estimated that the immediate cost of these fatalities was ?500,000 per head; the knock-on effects, he said, amounted to anything up to ?250m. The HSE’s report, Fatal Injuries in Farming 1996-1997, was then passed discreetly among us. Its soothing ultramarine cover belied its hair-raising contents, the worst of which was a section which described in graphic detail the circumstances surrounding every one of the 63 “accident situations,” as Mattey called them. I turned at once to this harrowing and compulsive catalogue of rural carnage, and stopped listening to Mattey altogether. Horrifically, several farmers were swallowed up by their own machinery last year. One was crushed in a lettuce harvester. Another was found dead in his baler, neatly parcelled. Others were unintentionally reaped by combine harvesters driven by their employees. Falls from roofs, silage clamps, potato trays and a horse accounted for the accidental deaths of 12 farmers, while 11 were struck by farm vehicles and a further 11 were thrown out of them or trapped and crushed beneath them. Among the latter was a 64-year-old farm employee who was driving an all-terrain vehicle on a steep hillside when it careered out of control, failed to negotiate a bend at the bottom, ploughed through some rough shrubland and threw him head first down a badger hole. Three farmers were killed by their cattle. One received fatal chest injuries from a group of penned 16-month to 21-month-old Friesian bulls; a 68-year-old man was trampled to death by his Friesian steers when he tried to sort them for slaughter; and a 41-year-old self-employed farmer was attacked by a Friesian bull in a field and butted 25 metres to the fenceline. The only fatality secured by animals other than cattle was chalked up by a pair of Shire horses in Wales. As they were being hitched to a wagon by a 68-year-old employee who was standing between them, they were disturbed by an insect. The man was buffeted by the agitated horses, fell on his back, and was badly trampled by one of them. Then he was run over and crushed by the cart. Given the high proportion of farmers who own shotguns, I was surprised to learn that only one farm worker had died from gunshot wounds: a 51-year-old Welshman who had been standing in a collecting yard, helping others to restrain and calm a cow about to be slaughtered. The farmer’s son shot at the cow from close range with his .22, but missed; whereupon the cow went berserk and tried to escape her assassins by climbing over a gate. In the ensuing pandemonium the gun accidentally went off again, this time hitting the man in the heart and killing him instantly. This accident was categorised by the HSE report as “hit by a moving object.” Taking the accounts of the deaths together with the report’s helpful pie charts, it becomes evident that, statistically, an agricultural wor- ker is most likely to suffer a fatal accident if he is a 62-year-old self-employed Welsh farmer corralling a dairy bull between 3pm and 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon in August, with moving vehicles in the vicinity. Since studying this tragic report I have noticed that the rural idylls depicted by Constable on our best table mats have taken on a slightly melancholic tinge.