top of page

How I ended up with Chemical Blood Poisoning on a Farm, UK

I was in two minds about writing this blog post. It’s an incident that happened under not ideal circumstances and no ill-intentions, an accident that could’ve resulted in something much worse. I’d like to make clear that this blog is for education and awareness, the farmer in question shall remain anonymous and I wish them all the best for their future.

Chemical Blood Poisoning
Chemical Blood Poisoning

Lambing jobs are a good filler between the end of the shearing season in Norway and the start of the UK. I’d booked in to work in Cumbria, lambing outdoors. I’d spoken to the farmer and asked if I would be able to arrive a little bit later, I’d been offered some more shearing work in Norway and wanted to accept. Doing my best not to upset any commitments I called to ask for permission to come later than the agreed date. I was told that would be fine and wrongly assumed that the ewes would be ‘set stock’ – in specified fields, ready for lambing.

When I arrived, the pregnant ewes were spread across various places in Cumbria, the sheep needed rounding up and bringing back to the farm, vaccinating (Heptivac), foot bathing, worming and sorting into certain paddocks. Heptivac is a vaccination that creates antibodies for the mother ewe and unborn lambs; to function - and give the lambs the antibodies, the mother ewe needs to be dosed 4-6 weeks before lambing. Some of the ewes had given birth already or had started to bag up (produce milk) so it was too late for the lambs to get any benefit from the mother’s vaccination. The lambs which had already been born needed a dose of vaccine, as well as their mothers, doubling the cost to the farmer. Many of these pregnant ewes were also lame, from previous times working there, I knew this farm suffered with CODD (contagious ovine digital dermatitis). In my opinion, CODD can only be eradicated by culling: only ewes immune would remain. Alternatively, strong antibiotics such as Draxxin or Micotil (very strong antibiotics which require a vet’s prescription -unlikely) may cure temporarily but the ewe usually gets reinfected.

Collie dog in Cumbria
Jane working in Cumbria

We’d spent the morning bringing sheep back to the main farm, with sheep in multiple places the decision was made not to move all the pregnant ewes back to the farm and to leave a few groups in the same fields to lamb there. Ewes who’d eaten all the grass and “ran out of keep” would be prioritised for fresh grass. When returning to the farm, we unloaded the sheep off the trailer and into the yard, which was gravel and on a slope, – built in the 1900s, they were designed for dipping sheep, with no race or pen suitable for vaccinating or worming (more modern shepherding). The only way to process in these large pens meant you had to fill them full with sheep, tightly packed in. Once vaccinated & wormed a spot of coloured marker was sprayed onto their back to show they’d been ‘done’. After treatments, they were run through the footbath, which led out into a big green field.

At this farm, the concrete footbath was full of mud and rocks, with leftover chemical contaminants, to clean and empty the bath legally, it would need to be disposed of carefully. With over 4 figures of ewes to process through the yards, there was simply no time to clean and dispose of the remnants in the footbath. To combat the CODD virus, the farmer had bought a new product – the front of the bottle had a cow on and was created to treat digital dermatitis in cows (foot rot). Usually, any products developed for cattle are stronger than those created for sheep – most licensed, injectable treatments for sheep were originally designed for cattle. The farmer asked me to ‘top-up’ the footbath with this new product, so the bath would be deep enough to run the sheep through and dose their feet. I asked “how many litres does it hold?” whilst trying to calculate the correct dilution. Following instructions, I measured the correct amount, poured the jug into the bath, and mixed it with the water using a nearby stick.

Due to the concentration of footbath product, the first lot of sheep ran out onto the Cumbrian mountainside with bright blue feet, they looked like smurf boots. The second group went up the slope to go into the footbath and the farmer shouted “get that one!” with a bad setup of yards, it was not unusual for a ewe to be missed in the cramped pens. I ran up the slippy slope, through the small gateway, stretched out my right hand and grabbed the unmarked ewe just as she was midway through the footbath. Unknown to me at the time, I must’ve gotten splashed with the product as the rest of the sheep darted to get away from me. We finished that group of sheep and carried on working until it was dark. Even after dark there were a few jobs left on the list, there were some sheep in the shed which needed hay/sheep nuts and Jane with her pups needed feeding.

My first job every morning was to wake up at 6, check on Jane and her pups and then do a ‘lambing beat’. A ‘lambing beat’ means walking the hillside, checking on the ewes who were lambing, counting any newborn lambs to report at breakfast and seeing if there were any problems that needed attention. Even though Herdwick sheep look quite similar there are certain differences that you can memorise to tell them apart. Usually, a ewe will discretely take herself away from the main flock and lamb in a more sheltered area; behind a rock or tree. Often a mother ewe will take a previous daughter (now also lambing herself) to the same spot they were born in, generations of ewes have their lambing ‘spot’ and when working in the same hillside you soon learn the favoured spots to give birth and therefore where to check first on a lambing beat. In a normal circumstance, once up and had a drink of colostrum milk, the ewe will return back to the flock with her new addition(s).

Chemical Blood Poisoning
Spreading Red Rash down my neck

The day after using the new footbath dip product and my right hand developed a rash. It was just red and blotchy, I wasn’t worried about it. I knew that I didn’t cover or submerge my hand in the dip, I was very careful when measuring out the product. It is designed to coat hooves, not skin and therefore must be ultra-absorbent to penetrate the hoof keratin. Later on, I started to get quite lethargic, this is common, especially during lambing time when people are stressed and there is a lot to do in little time. I shrugged it off and continued my job.

On the second day after using the new product, the rash had spread across to my left hand and was itchy. It looked like acne without the pus, was red and inflamed and had no apparent source, my fingers started to puff up. It was early May but still not would be described as ‘warm weather’ but the smallest task made me sweat. That afternoon I had to drive a quad bike with a trailer full of gates we’d been using to separate the sheep at another field, back to the farm, the journey took almost an hour. Although the sun was shining, I became cold, wet from perspiration in the morning, the chill went through my bones, I didn’t have any gloves and the wind on my hands hurt and caused the rash to inflame. Once back at the farm, the farmer’s wife was very generous and bought some powerful, non-perfume, moisturising creams at the chemist, immediately I coated the rashes, reapplying after a shower and before bed. Unfortunately, when I woke up it appeared to have made no difference and had spread.

Herdwick Sheep in Cumbria
Sunrise Lambing Beats

Conveniently my father and sister were visiting Cumbria, it’s not often I see my ‘birth family’ so they were invited to come and see me at work; the farm was also a B&B and they got a room to stay in. By the third day, the rash had spread to my face and my red cheeks had started to swell, both my hands were covered in this rash and it was progressing down my neck. When my dad arrived I went to say ‘hello’ and got back “your face does not look good”. Ironically, this was the first time my dad had come to visit me at work (…and the last). He said he would like to drive me to the walk-in, non-emergency hospital for a professional opinion, obviously busy during lambing I agreed only if we went after I’d finished work for the day. Lambing outdoors has many benefits and it’s a system I much prefer, one of the best things is once it gets dark outside, the sheep are usually left until first light as disturbing a flock in the dark tends to cause more damage than good. Once dark, we jumped in the car and went to the walk-in, it was incredibly busy and I felt as if I was wasting their time. The doctor who came to see me was occupied with many other patients and sent me home – she didn’t think it was worthwhile and I understand her decision. That night, I woke up shivering and sweating, I couldn’t work out whether I was hot or cold, thinking it must be something I’d eaten I drank some water and waited until morning.

The following sunrise I was joined by my dad and sister for the usual lambing checks. Usually, after a few days on the hill, I regain my fitness quite quickly and am capable of running after ewes. That day I was struggling for breath, every intake was a big heave, filling my lungs. I felt as if I had to stop every 10m and my ‘townie’ family members were far too easily able to keep up and even overtake me. In the night, the rash had traveled down my neck and had swollen around my windpipe every inhale-exhale felt like I was inhaling pieces of glass instead of oxygen, scraping up and down my throat. I turned to the sun and felt my cheeks sizzle, the sensation reminded me of when you drop bacon into a hot pan. My dad saw my condition and insisted on taking me back to the non-emergency walk-in. The combination of pain, fatigue and confusion meant I don’t think I was a very effective shepherd so agreed to go with him.

This time there was a short wait, a different doctor heard that a farmer has chosen to come in’, he took one look and immediately called an ambulance. I can’t remember exactly how long until the ambulance arrived, but the nurses rigged me to an obs machine to check my vitals. They put a drip in my arm to keep me hydrated and I was wheelchaired into the ambulance with a plastic drip bag swinging above my head. I remember taking a video in the ambulance, thinking it was all quite dramatic, I’d just felt sleepy and gotten this weird rash, couldn’t they just give me some pills and let me go? The paramedics explained I’d done nothing wrong, that they were concerned about what products were in my system and needed to run further tests at a bigger hospital with a poisons unit, even with the blue lights on it was a fair journey. Accepting my fate for the day (and clearly needing it) I fell sound asleep, woken only by the occasional pot-hole bump.

Upon arriving at Barrow, my bed was wheeled out and a ‘handover’ was given, from spending time on work experience in hospitals, I had a vague understanding of what was going on. The product that was used for foot dip wasn’t registered in the UK so there was no ingredient list available for the doctors. This meant that they couldn’t decipher what chemicals were in my system, causing a “severe reaction” and my condition was apparently worsening. Unsure whether contagious, I was wheeled into a room of my own, complete with all emergency equipment. At certain time intervals, blood was taken from my arm and sent to the hospital lab for testing. I’m certain that my brain was affected as my memory from this is quite blurred; I’m glad that I took photos and have the messages I sent that day to remind me of the following events. Initially, I was given a strong antihistamine treatment intravenously. Unfortunately, the veins in my right arm were weak and not allowing a strong flow of treatment so a larger needle was put into my left arm. After some time, the antihistamine wasn’t working and with “no change in symptoms”, my drip was changed and I received a strong steroid treatment. At one point I had 5 qualified doctors in my room debating what to do, it was at that point I started to acknowledge that I could be in quite a dangerous situation, with no known ‘cure’ and apparently obs were not responding to whatever the doctors were giving me, the situation felt a bit scary.

Antihistamines and Steroids to take when out of hospital

After 3 rounds of steroids combined with antihistamines, I was informed that my body was positively responding: immediately I started to feel better but that was likely from relief than recovery. Throughout the whole time, I was thinking about Jane and her pups back at the farm and I wanted to get back to them. After an intense discussion with the doctor team, I promised to come back if I felt any symptoms return and self-discharged. The doctors advised me to have 3-4 weeks off work, not something I could afford or allow whilst working in farming, my dad came to pick me up and drove me back to the farm. I knew there was a mountain of work that should’ve happened before the ewes started lambing and a day away from the farm would only increase the pressure. Out of the hundreds of ewes which still needed to be vaccinated, wormed and foot bathed I returned to find the farmer sitting on his chair in the living room. He began talking about the ‘big list of jobs to be done’ – I’ll be honest, I was pretty frustrated that he hadn’t done anything while I was quite literally strapped to a bed in an ambulance, more concerned about what his ‘new product’ had done to his sheep after my trip to the hospital I decided it would be best to leave the farm. I had work booked in for shearing a few weeks later and couldn’t afford to be out of work for the foreseeable summer. I also knew I couldn’t handle another dose of foot bath dip so left that job, ashamed, however, it was the right thing to do.

I’m not proud to have ‘walked off a job’, in fact, I feel quite ashamed about it. The farmer was known to be difficult to work for and I had great pride working there and not experiencing this, I got on with the job and worked hard – an attitude I have all over the world. This whole experience has really taught me to value ‘good bosses’, the ones who’ve looked after me. A few years later I think that I’ve finally ‘forgiven’ myself for walking away, I was quite literally in an ambulance and that should’ve been reason enough. Like many other shepherds, our concern is with the animals, not ourselves, something which may need to be reconsidered occasionally.

Puppies in Bucket
Best way to transport Jane and her pups

I drove away, with my dog, Jane, her pups and still a pretty swollen face (it took a few weeks to fully disappear). I had texted a good friend and Cumbrian farmer John Atkinson asking if he knew of any work in the area; his reply was “just drive here, beds made, Highland Beef for dinner and we’ll sort some work out”. I’ll never be able to thank John enough for this message, I was pretty miserable so it gave me needed hope. I stayed with John and Maria for just over a week, they quite literally nursed me back to health, allowed me to sleep for a few days and gave me no obligation to get up or go out to work. With brilliant home cooked (and usually sourced from their farm), I recovered much faster than I would have anywhere else. There are some people in this world who you don’t realise you need until you summon up the courage, ignore the stubbornness and ask for help, John and Maria are wonderful people, the type who make the world a better place.I plan to write a blog post about them soon but if you’d like to learn more about their businesses, the links are below.

Since this incident, a well-known Cumbrian Young Farmer, Hannah Brown has died of Sepsis, another form of blood poisoning. News of her death shocked the whole community but instilled in me the importance of going to the hospital if I’m unwell. If my father hadn’t visited I know that the farmer would’ve been reluctant or even annoyed to take me in. It’s common in the farming community to ‘push through’ and ‘carry on with the job’, this needs to change. There is an awareness campaign for sepsis that has been created in memory of Hannah – for more information please click – here.

I’d like to dedicate this post to Hannah Brown and the fantastic NHS who treated me with such great professionalism even when dealing with so many unknown variables. They really are the heroes of British Society, and I am publicly supportive of any strike measures taken to ensure fair pay across the medical sector.



bottom of page