Brenda Sutcliffe

… the farmer and farmworkers champion who exposed the OP sheep dip scandal that killed thousands 

Obituary (2017)

Justice denied for shepherd Brenda Sutcliffe, a remarkable woman

Campaigner Brenda Sutcliffe, the Littleborough shepherd who became the unofficial spokeswoman for thousands of farmers and agricultural labourers who were poisoned, often with fatal consequences, by organophosphate sheep dip, died on 18 January 2017.

Although the government’s chief scientist Professor Solly Zuckerman warned as long ago as 1951 that organophosphate pesticides (OP) were deadly poisons and could be absorbed through the skin or inhalation, their use in sheep dip became compulsory in the late 1970s. Zuckerman’s report remained lay hidden in the House of Commons until Brenda discovered it in 2005

Sheep dip users were left uninformed about the dangers or the need to wear suitable protective clothing to prevent serious illness. Those that became unwell — symptoms included feeling acutely tired, weak and nauseous, memory loss and blurred vision — initially found it almost impossible to be diagnosed by their doctors. 

Brenda, who suffered, along with members of her family, when forced by government officials to use OP sheep dip in 1992, faced a wall of silence when she began researching OP hazards. She eventually used the US Freedom of Information Act to uncover evidence of just how dangerous and deadly OP’s can be. 

When Brenda began to publicise her research and contact the press, chemical companies, politicians and farming organisations she was inundated by requests to help from the victims of OP sheep dip. Eventually clinical tests were developed that can provide objective evidence of OP poisoning and this has assisted doctors to make a diagnosis when they are visited by potential sufferers, including military personnel known to have been exposed to the neurotoxins during tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus airline staff exposed to toxic air. 

Brenda calculated that between 1995 and 2005 more than 1,000 shepherds ended their own lives because of OP sheep dip. Brenda fought tirelessly — and ultimately unsuccessfully — for the victims families to be compensated. Generally the victims were the main breadwinner. 

Brenda’s specially produced booklet Cause and effect — the search for truth was first published in 2005. It became widely read right across the globe. In 2011, Brenda, whose husband Harold was a Unite member, received an award from Greening the North, a UK network with links to the Centre for Holistic Studies in India. She was cited for ‘your work for the OP-affected, including your letters to the press.’

Brenda and other campaigners forced the HSE to issue health warnings and instructions on the use of OPs and bring to an end the compulsory order on sheep dipping. But the products — used to tackle sheep scab — remain on the market with the added requirement that anyone purchasing the dip must attend a course — costing in total £150 — to achieve the necessary ‘Safe Use of Sheep Dip’ licence. Each applicant must demonstrate that they understand the regulations including the necessity to wear protective clothing during the dipping operation. 

Brenda, whose work was featured regularly in Landworker, was rightly proud of her considerable efforts and achievements but when we last spoke she was, as always, forthright in expressing her views. “Justice has been denied to the likes of myself whose health was badly affected by OPs. We, with the help of people like yourself and Landworker, showed these were dangerous — deadly — products and we never hesitated to criticise the chemical companies who manufactured them. We damaged their sales but they have never sued us because our research backed up what we said publicly.  

“The government, whether New Labour or Tory, public health bodies and solicitors who were supposed to help us ran away from the battle. People still need prosecuting for their roles in this whole affair. I think we have won a number of battles but OPs are still deadly, too widely used and many products containing them need banning.” 

Around 40 people attended Brenda’s funeral at which her friend Dee Uttley gave a marvellous eulogy.

Read more from Brenda’s specially produced booklet Cause and effect — the search for truth