INCIDENTS of on-farm lead poisoning in 2020 amounted to more than those recorded in 2018 and 2019 combined.

On the back of that stark figure, farmers are being urged to watch out for lead sources on their land that could poison their livestock, with Food Standards Scotland launching a new on-farm incident prevention campaign. Lead is a highly toxic metal causing nervous disease, blindness, infertility and even death. The main sources of lead on farm are from electric batteries, flaking lead paint or bonfire ash. Young cattle are most at risk due to their curious nature.

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.

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.”

In another case, a fly-tipped battery ended up inside a silage bale and was then found in a feeder inside a cattle shed. As a result of this, one animal died, four became unwell and 35 were restricted from the food chain until a sufficient withdrawal period had passed – and the farmer is still monitoring levels of lead in the blood of some of his animals as the battery was broken up.

Food Standards Scotland’s head of Food Crime and Incidents Unit, Ron McNaughton, said: “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.”

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 haven’t considered that aspect of it when choosing to dump rubbish.”

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 which can be viewed here: