Yorkshire and North East
Mark Mather lay desperately hurt, alone and unable to summon help on the family farm in Wooler, Northumberland, when a loaded shotgun went off at close range into his leg. He was found by his father, who had come into the fields to check on some escaped sheep and but for that, and the local RAF rescue service flying him to hospital, he would have died.
The incident happened in June 2008. Mark, aged 24 at the time, was extremely busy on the farm’s two and half thousand acres with its huge sheep flock, 150 breeding and fattening cattle and arable land. In addition to the mainstream activity the farm also operates a recycling waste business which serves about 200 farms in the area. The farm is worked by his father, Neil, Mark himself, a full time shepherd, a full time tractor operator and a trainee youngster.
Mark did a business course before leaving school in preparation for the financial side of the farm business. From his late teens he was then involved with every aspect of the work. In addition to his farm duties he was a retained fireman with the local fire service and about to become chairman of the County Young Farmers’ club. He was extremely happy with his life. “I was born on the farm and have never wanted to do anything else but agriculture,” he said.
On the day of the accident Mark had been ploughing a field in readiness to put in a kale crop. He was aware throughout the work that the barley crop in the next field was being plundered by crows. “I was really irritated as hard work goes into the production of the crop and the birds were really hammering it,” he said. Mark returned to the house in the early evening and went straight out again, dropping off a bait bag and collecting his shotgun to get rid of some of the crows. He returned to the field on an ATV which had a twitching device of decoy birds on its front rack to attract crows so they could be shot. “It was a grand summer’s night,” Mark said, “Warm and light. I was carrying the double barrelled shotgun across my lap. It was loaded but I had the safety catch on.”
Mark drove about a quarter of a mile from the farm to the first field where he took a couple of shots but then decided to move onto the next field. He rode a short distance of 300 yards down a public road and then turned into the next field. As he did so the battery powering the twitcher on the front of the ATV moved slightly and he leaned forward to secure it. As a result, the ATV veered onto a slight bank and overturned. The vehicle overturned and hit the butt of the shotgun, which went off, firing both barrels into Mark’s right leg. Mark had not been aware in carrying the loaded gun that the safety catch just protected the triggers and would not prevent the gun firing pins releasing if the weapon was struck hard in any way.
Mark had been away from the house for about three quarters of an hour. “I was conscious, in great pain and losing a lot of blood. I tried to get myself up but could not stand and I could not summon help because my mobile phone battery was flat,” he said.
Fortunately for him his father had received a message at the farm to say that some sheep had escaped and unaware that his son was lying gravely injured his father came down to the fields to look for them. He was horrified and shocked to find Mark lying under the ATV and used a leather belt to put a tourniquet on the leg to stem some of the bleeding. Help was summoned but because of the severity of the injury RAF Boulmer sent a rescue helicopter to take Mark to hospital at Ashington.
Surgeons operated throughout the night but were forced to amputate the leg in order to save his life. His parents and his girl friend at the time were given the news that despite all their efforts Mark could still lose his life. Mark had had the leg amputated at the thigh and had four or five further operations every other day during the following weeks.
The impact on Mark’s life and the farm business was huge. He was unable to work for over a year and on his return to work still suffered pain and weakness. He still had to take 14 tablets a day due to the extent of the damage and the scarring and was being given walking lessons. He faces further operations on his leg and hopes that at some point in the future another leg can be fitted.
Mark says the accident put the farm under major financial strain. “Neighbours were very good and came in to do the silage for us. My father visited me in hospital every day and so his work time was lost. He had to hire in extra help during the considerable length of time I was unable to work. Because my injury is so severe it means there are certain aspects of the work I can no longer do. I have lost a lot of mobility and working with livestock is no longer possible. We have had to buy a specially adapted tractor which has been fitted with a left foot accelerator and I have a similarly adapted car and a four-by-four vehicle.
“It has hit my parents very hard. My Dad did not go shooting at all last year, which is something that he would normally enjoy.” It is the farm work and fire service connection which has kept Mark positive. “Although I can no longer do the full range of physical work on the farm there is still a lot I can do and I have been attending the Fire Service Rehabilitation centre. The Fire Service will keep me on with them but in a different role. The Young Farmers too have been very supportive.”
He is a supporter of the ‘Make the Promise’ agricultural safety campaign and speaks at agricultural safety events in the area.” The accident not only put safety awareness to the fore on our own farm but on surrounding farms in the area when friends and neighbours heard about it,” he said.
“I am prepared to tell what happened to me if it helps prevent others suffering this kind of incident,” he said. “My advice is to never carry a loaded gun on a vehicle and always to think twice about everything before you start a job. The danger in farm work lies when you do the same task day in and day out and you are so familiar with the process that you do not take the time to stop and think. A moment’s slip or lack of concentration can alter your and your family’s life for ever. There are no second chances.”