Champions celebrate a triumph over disaster

Wendy and David Hanson
Wendy and David Hanson
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A couple whose sheep have won prizes wherever they have been this year have succeeded against all the odds. Chris Berry reports.

David Hanson was a star motorbike racer who was used to taking risks and facing life-threatening hazards.

But it was in the workaday world of farming that he came a cropper. Now after several years he has struggled back on his feet and is a star competitor once again. Not with motorbikes but with sheep.

He and his wife are having a remarkable season with their Swaledales in the show rings of North Yorkshire.

They have won at every show they have been to and they would dearly love to end on a high with another overall championship success at Stokesley Show next Saturday.

But what is even more remarkable is that David has been able to compete at all.

Four years ago he started suffering severe headaches, double vision and imagining things that were not there.

Things got worse. He lost his memory completely and his sight. He couldn’t walk, feed himself or read and write.

At first, there was a thought that he had meningitis. Eventually, it was diagnosed as encephalitis, a virus on the brain, which is inhaled through the nostrils.

There was a fear David’s illness may have been caused as a result of inhalation from sheep dip.

He spent eight weeks in hospital both in Scarborough and York as his condition continued to deteriorate.

As if that wasn’t enough, in January 2010 he was diagnosed as suffering from Hodgkins Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph glands.

He was back in hospital once again at Scarborough and subsequently Castle Hill Hospital in Hull for chemotherapy.

He’s in remission now and he goes for tests every three months and his hair has grown back.

But the fallout from encephalitis is proving much harder to shake off. “I get very upset, because I can’t do what I used to, says David.

“We were trying to catch sheep this morning and my hands are now really sore with blisters as my hands have now gone soft. I’m not as strong as I was and that makes me depressed.

“My memory is also very bad. I do something, and immediately I’ve done it I can’t remember what it was.

“The next day I might remember what I was doing the day before. I can go to a show, go to the toilet; then I don’t know where the sheep are when I’m coming back.

“I try to do what I can but I get drained. When people see me they think I’m all right, but I know I’m not back to where I was.”

Fortunately, his wife Wendy has been by his side throughout and has kept the farm going, as well as keeping David’s spirits up. But it’s not been easy.

“David can’t think for himself properly because he has lost his short term memory,” says Wendy. “He can’t work at all on the farm because he doesn’t have the strength.

“When he is showing the sheep I have to help him because he starts well, but fades.

“I’ve had to do everything and that has been very hard. He writes notes on his hands to remind him what he’s supposed to be doing and he’s even had to learn how to eat again.

“He couldn’t wash himself or any of the other personal things you need to do, so I had to help.

“You just have to try and think positively. I have cracked up a few times when I’ve been on my own at home. It’s been a horrible time.

“There was one time when they said they didn’t know whether he would pull through.

“And another when they wanted to put him in an institution. But I wasn’t having that. He’s not lost his mind, just his memory at times.

“What has been really good is to see him smiling again. I think being at the agricultural shows has done such a lot for him.

“It’s brought him out a lot more. He’s now getting back towards his normal self, even though he knows he’s a long way off that. And I try not to dwell on the past four years.”

Wendy is a farmer’s daughter from Guisborough. She met David at Ruswarp Livestock Market, near Whitby, 14 years ago. They married when David was stricken with encephalitis.

“I used to feel dizzy and sick when we used OP dip,” says Wendy. “We stopped using it. We now use pour-ons.” Wendy has had no support group to fall back on during all this.

David was born at Eastrington, near Goole and always had an ambition to farm. He worked for Chris Swiers at Broxa Farm, near Scarborough and Charlie Hopper at Langdale End. Then David’s father, a renowned stamp dealer, purchased Billera Farm at Fylindales in 1987.

David began as a motor mechanic and raced motorcycles successfully, winning at Croft, Cadwell, Snetteron and a number of other circuits.

He raced an RG500 Suzuki which had belonged to the celebrated world champion Barry Sheene and for a time David held the lap record at the Croft circuit.

At one time he had 1,000 sheep and 50 cattle, now reduced to 200 and 25 respectively. But the sheep remain the couple’s passion and their Swaledales have already won at Cleveland, Ryedale, Egton, Thornton-le-Dale, Bilsdale, Danby, Kildale, Farndale and Osmotherley.

“We’ve had a great season,” says Wendy “Our gimmer shearling has won eight championships and a ewe has won one. The shearling has also taken three ‘top sheep in show’ titles and we’ve had a number of first places in classes with our other sheep.”

Dipping of sheep was compulsory from 1984-1991 and OP dips were favoured by farmers because they were cheaper.

Dipping is used to prevent sheep scab, tick and blowfly.

It is estimated that 50 per cent of sheep dipped in the UK are still dipped using OP dip.

Last year, Paul Wright, an OP dip sufferer and farmer from Burnley in Lancashire, called on the National farmers Union to create a register of all farmers suffering health problems associated with OP sheep dips.

Stokesley Show, Saturday, September 17.

The experts’ view of the illness

Encephalitis is an acute inflammation of the brain.

The Royal Colleges of Physicians and Psychiatrists produced a report designed to advise on the clinical management of patients with the symptoms of chronic OP exposure and to review any new evidence about them.

The experts heard about symptoms including excessive tiredness, headaches, limb pains, disturbed sleep, poor concentration, mood changes, and thoughts of suicide.

It was also reported that patients felt strongly that they had not been looked after properly by hospitals and doctors.