By Ruth D’Alessandro, The Wildlife Gardener The Wildlife Gardener is sad about the closure of Godstone Farm in Surrey due to the E. coli 0157’outbreak’, and because there are many children ill, some seriously, with the bug. This media story is close to my heart: the Junior Wildlife Gardeners have spent many happy hours at Godstone Farm and JWG1 contracted E. coli at a petting farm (not Godstone) at the age of 2. Now government adviser Hugh Pennington has pronounced that’parents should “think very hard” about letting children under five touch the animals at petting farms’, a move that I feel will further divorce children from the countryside, their own immune systems and knowing where our food comes from.
Perhaps the problem is not so much about touching animals, rather, where can pathogens be spread to? Let’s start with my own experience of E. coli. Junior Wildlife Gardener no. 1, her lovely godmother Sarah and I went for a day out at a children’s farm in Kent. It was a muddy November afternoon with few visitors. The animals were pleased to see us, or rather to see the buckets of feed containing cereals and chopped carrots that we bought at the farm shop. And feed the animals we did, paddling about in the inevitable soup of mud, rain, faeces and urine that pools in every farm in the country.
JWG1 then dropped a carrot into that murky soup. I watched her pick it up, certain that she would post it into the waiting mouth of a goat. Instead, quick as a flash, she posted it into her OWN mouth. And even quicker than a flash, I yanked the carrot out. We then tried very hard to get her to spit out the remaining’mud’. Miffed at losing her tasty carrot, and not wanting to spit for a mother who was behaving like the Drill Sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, JWG1 did what 2-year-olds do, and threw a massive tantrum, which of course produced plenty of saliva to wash the’mud’ down into her stomach. Oh dear. We couldn’t really do a lot, so we calmed JWG1 down and made sure we all washed our hands (and faces) carefully with soap and water afterwards. JWG1 ate a big pile of shepherd’s pie for tea that night, and went to bed happily, tired out. Then, at 3am, a pained crying started. Not wanting to be too graphic here, JWG1 had been sick all over her bed and had diarrhoea. She also had stomach cramps and was pale and miserable. Classic E. coli, and the cause was obvious. I treated her with lots of TLC and fluids, she was unwell for the best part of the week, then bounced back. I didn’t sue the farm. I didn’t blame the government. E. coli lives in the gut of most animals. It comes out in the faeces. If children put animal faeces in their mouths, they’re going to be ill. Now, should petting farms have play areas? Godstone Farm is famous for combining a hands-on animal experience with huge sandpits, climbing frames, slides and trim trails. The farm takes hygiene hyper-seriously and has done all it can to drive home the message that hands should be washed after touching animals. There are signs everywhere, and plenty of well-equipped washing stations around the farm. But what about those dirty little feet? Children can be paddling round the farmyard one minute, then, wearing those same pooey shoes, play in the sandpits and on the climbing frames. Toddlers dig in the sand and put their fingers in their mouths. They pull themselves up ladders that mucky little feet have just stepped on. And they put their fingers in their mouths again. Children’s hands may be darn near-sterile thanks to the excellent hand washing facilities, but their feet infected with a very nasty strain of bacteria that they are now treading all over the slides. Not hard to see how a pathogen like E. coli can spread round a park like Godstone Farm. It will be interesting to see, when analysis has been completed, which areas of Godstone Farm contain higher levels of E. coli bacteria. If analysts test just the animal pens, they may be missing a trick. Going a step further, children SHOULD be able to play in muck and not become ill. Have we become too reliant on’killing 99% of germs ” dead’ at home with anti-bacterial wipes, sprays and bleaches? Houses (not mine) are scrubbed, blitzed, steam-cleaned and sterilised on a weekly basis. Perfectly good food nearing a sell-by date is discarded. Mould is no longer cut off cheese. Where are the germs for our children’s immune systems to encounter? Currently, the must-have accessory in the Surrey Mummy’s Vuitton is a little squirty bottle of alcohol gel for Octavia and Kit to rub into their hands after they’ve got mucky. Rub INTO their hands? Shouldn’t they be washing AWAY the germs down a plughole with soap and water? If children’s immune systems are not regularly exposed to low level microbes, how on earth are they expected to cope when a really nasty one, like E.coli 0157 comes along? As a parent myself, I feel for those parents whose children are ill with E coli 0157 from Godstone Farm. To build up immune resistance couldn’t we let our kids get a bit dirtier on a daily basis? Could we ditch the bleach spray in favour of hot, soapy water? Give the children pets they have to clean out so that they are exposed to some fairly innocuous faeces? Children SHOULD be in contact with animals from an early age, but they should wash hands AND clean shoes. Feed farm animals but don’t put faeces in their mouths! Eat those yoghurts that are three days past the sell-by date. Pick an apple up off the ground, wipe it on your trousers and eat it. My grandmother used to say,’You have to eat a peck of dirt before you die’.’Yes Granny’, I said, crunching my way through some of her gritty kale,’but not all in one sitting.’