A farmer has expressed his anger after 30 of his sheep died from suspected acid poisoning after reportedly ingesting some contaminated floodwater that came from the River Swale.

Richard Webster, who has a farm at Gatenby, near Leeming, North Yorkshire, first noticed an issue on December 28 last year when he had to move his livestock up to the top of a raised part in his field, due to floodwater building on the lower patches of land. 

On January 2 this year, Mr Webster returned to his field and found ten sheep dead without explanation and others looking ill. 

The Northern Echo: Richard WebsterRichard Webster (Image: NORTHERN ECHO)

After ringing the vets and being told to bring the dead sheep to be examined, several more of Mr Webster's flock had unexpectedly died - several of which hadn't shown any signs of illness before.

Concerned for the welfare of the sheep, and conscious of losing any more of his 125-strong flock, the farmer moved all of his sheep into a shed - ensuring that the conditions were clean and that the water the animals drank was new and clean.

However, when he returned the next day, on Saturday, January 6, 2024, ten more of his sheep had died 'in a line' and were laid on the floor of the shed.

The Northern Echo: Some excess floodwater in Mr Webster's fieldSome excess floodwater in Mr Webster's field (Image: NORTHERN ECHO)

In total, Mr Webster lost 30 of his sheep during January 2024 - 29 ewes and one tup - a financial loss of around £8000, which included more than £600 for the tup.

Baffled by the loss of a significant part of his flock, the North Yorkshire farmer received a report from Mile House Veterinary Centre in Northallerton - which linked the sheep's deaths to the floodwater.

Mr Webster now believes that pollution in the River Swale caused the death of his sheep through poisoning. 

He said: "I was at a loss why the sheep were dying - it seemed strange that it continued when they were in the shed together, but it was eventually linked to the floodwater. 

The Northern Echo: The shed that the sheep were moved to on the top of a hill The shed that the sheep were moved to on the top of a hill (Image: NORTHERN ECHO)

"Having to drag dead sheep up by hand from fields and seeing your animals dying each day is awful.

"After getting the vet report, we got a further in-depth insight, which linked the substance in the floodwater to acid and fuel.

"I'm angered that this could keep happening year on year - and I either have to accept it as a part of my farming that some of my sheep will die or move to another field."

The Northern Echo: Sheep in the field on the farm at GatenbySheep in the field on the farm at Gatenby (Image: NORTHERN ECHO)

Alongside the issue of the dead livestock, the loss of his 30 sheep also left Mr Webster out of pocket after his insurers, RF Broadley, refused to pay out, due to the farmer moving the livestock into the shed to protect them, instead of leaving them out in the field.

Mr Webster added: "If I would have left the sheep in the field to drown or continue to die, I would have got compensation. If I would have let them be swept away by the river, I would have got paid out. But because I was a responsible farmer and tried to protect my animals, I didn't get a payout."

Despite the financial burden of not getting compensation, Mr Webster says that he's more concerned about the impact of contaminated floodwater - a concern shared by environmental group, Save Our Swale (SOS), who have called on farmers and members of the public to unite and campaign for a cleaner River Swale.

A spokesperson for the group, who is responsible for campaigning for the reduction of pollution in the Swale, said: "SOS extend sympathy to Mr Webster for his livestock losses.

"We know from our last six months of analysing the water quality in the Swale from Grinton via Richmond to Brompton that our river is polluted.

"For example, in over 250 analyses, levels of potentially pathogenic coliform bacteria such as E.Coli exceeded recommended levels in 56 per cent of samples.

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"For bathing status, water is classified as 'excellent' at a rate of 500 coliforms per 100 ml of water.

"At Richmond Bridge by the station on one occasion 93,000 coliform cells per 100 ml of water were recorded. Downstream at Brompton, an even higher level of 650,000 was recorded.

"There are alliances to be made between residents and the farming community to ensure we all live and work by a river that is clean for livestock, wildlife and humans."

In response to Mr Webster's concerns, the Environment Agency has said that they can't comment specifically on the farmer's case but has committed to making the River Swale cleaner.

An Environment Agency Spokesperson said: "We are determined to improve the quality of our waters and are holding the water industry, farmers and anyone who pollutes our rivers to account on a scale never seen before.

“The River Swale and its surrounding catchments are affected by several complex factors and our team of specialist local officers work closely with others to address this challenge.

“This includes carrying out inspections of local sewage works and farms to ensure that they are compliant with their permits to prevent pollution from happening."

RF Broadley was contacted for comment but did not issue a statement.