Dairy farmer left 'shocked' and 'sickened' after heifers die from lead poisoning

Dry, hot spell increases poison risk, says vet. Stock image.
Dry, hot spell increases poison risk, says vet. Stock image.

Ger Flanagan

A dairy farmer has been left ‘shocked’ and ‘sickened’ after five of his heifers died in just six days due to severe lead poisoning that they picked up on commonage land in Mayo.

The farmer, who wishes to remain anonymous, said his herd was grazing on land in the Dererin area of Ballintubber when they were poisoned, and that he was completely unaware of that they had been poisoned due to how quickly the animals died.

“The commanage is sectioned off with electric fencing wire, and on the Wednesday [June 27 last] I found one heifer in a bog hole.

“It wasn’t stuck or anything, but it was frothing at the mouth, didn’t look in great shape and died within a few hours.

“I rang the vet, and he thought maybe the heifer had been in the trench for too long because it was such a hot day. On Saturday then I found another one in a trench, frothing at the mouth, and even though she got an injection, she was dead the following day.

“Before the vets came out on Sunday to do a postmortem, a third one was wandering around, and when he [the vet] went to treat her, she was in a trench and had died.”

The following Monday, after the farmer brought the third dead cow to Sligo for testing in the lab, it was revealed that the cows had died due to ‘severe lead poisoning’.

The land was then inspected to try to determine the source of the poisoning. The farmer found a stone covered in red paint lying in a ditch, and sent it to the lab that had tested the cow. The results showed that the stone was covered in a ‘highly toxic lead paint’.

Two more cows that were displaying symptoms similar to those shown by the deceased animals were subsequently put down on the farm.

“I could not believe it,” the farmer said. “It was probably old red-lead paint that was used on carts years ago and dumped there, and the cows might have licked it.

“I don’t think it’s produced any more. I wouldn’t have known what it was if I had seen it. Even the vet was baffled – he was used to lead poisoning, but with such a severe dose they didn’t develop symptoms.”


Local vet George O’Malley, who treated the heifers, revealed that the content of lead absorbed into the kidneys of the farmer’s cows was ‘as high as they have ever seen in the lab’.

O’Malley, who has over 40 years’ experience as a veterinary surgeon, says the lack of moisture in the grass leads to cows going ‘mooching’ (covering long distances looking for water), and he appealed to farmers to keep an extra eye on their stock for poisoning during the fine weather.

“After this prolonged spell of dry weather, cattle will go mooching,” he told The Mayo News. “They do things they normally wouldn’t do, and are prone to eating anything because of the low mineral content of our soil,” he said, explaining that the cattle are are craving something they are not getting from the grass.

O’Malley went on to say that the affected cattle in Ballintubber could not have recovered once they had ingested the poison.

“I have seen lead poisoning all my life; I’m nearly an expert on it at this stage… There are different types of lead, and some are absorbed more rapidly than others. They [the five heifers] had no chance of survival.

“I would advise farmers to watch their cows every day and be aware of all the poisonous plants in the ditches,” he continued. “In Mayo there are lots of ditches with poisonous plants. The animal’s liver can’t cope with the chemicals they may ingest,” he said, adding: “It’s very difficult to recognise a poisoned animal until it dies.”

Thousands lost

The farmer estimates that financially, his loss is ‘in the thousands’ – and that this will increase should he decide to replace the stock.

Although it comes as a huge blow, both financially and mentally, the farmer says he has no choice but to move on.

“It’s a bad shock and a sickener when you see heifers die like that,” he said. “I was walking up every morning, thinking that the first thing I will have to do is ring [fallen-animal collector] Vincent Maloney to take away a dead animal.

“That would be another €100 gone, along with the lab costs and vet costs that I have had to suffer. I had no insurance for that type of thing because you can’t really insure against it.

“But I’m over it now, and just have to move on.”

Online Editors