Review of bull on footpath manslaughter case not-guilty verdict


6 June 2014

The recent acquittal of a farmer accused of manslaughter has already been well covered in the media, eg for background see Farmers Guardian.  However, the implications of the ‘not guilty’ verdict is worth further analysis. There have been some interesting responses in the media in relation to keeping cattle on footpaths. 

Paul Waterfall, a Leicestershire dairy farmer who owns about 500 cattle, was alleged to have kept an ‘aggressive’ Brown Swiss bull in the field at Stanford-on-Soar, Nottinghamshire.  A man and his wife were walking across the field on a public footpath when they were attacked in 2010. 

It was alleged they were attacked by the bull and the 63-year-old Roger Freeman suffered horrific injuries after being charged and repeatedly tossed in the air by an animal. Mr Roger Freeman died at the scene and his wife Glenis was also badly injured.  The bull was destroyed. 

The trial (held at Nottingham Crown Court earlier in May) was told that this 19-month-old bull had previously chased other people before it attacked Mr Freeman.  However, the defence argued that the bull was ‘neither nasty or aggressive’.  There has been much debate about this aspect, particularly in relation to the temperament of ‘non-traditional/non-native’ breeds.  

It also appears further doubt was introduced because Mrs Freeman’s initial statement said the bull which killed her husband had horns, whereas the bull in the field did not. Mrs Freeman, now 70, admitted she was now unsure if the animal that attacked her and her husband did have horns.
Farmers Weekly also reported that In a video of Mrs Freeman’s police interview that was played to the court, she told how the 20-minute attack, which took place as darkness fell, left her “absolutely petrified” - and described Mr Freeman “shouting his goodbyes” as he was repeatedly thrown to the ground and tossed in the air.

Mrs Freeman, who suffered severe injuries, including a broken wrist, bruised heart, kidney damage and seven cracked ribs, said the animal that attacked her husband was a bull with horns.  She added: “The bull looked wound up. It looked excited. It wasn’t a calm bull stood there. It started tossing its head and pawing. The cows seemed to be running around in a half-circle. They seemed excited, like they were playing a game. The bull was prominent in the middle. The cows were around him.”

Martin Meeke QC, defending, claimed that prosecutors made no enquiries as to what animals were in the field on the day Mr Freeman died “until this trial”.  Mr Waterfall, giving evidence in his own defence, had said it was “impossible” to say, more than three years on, which animals had been in the field at the time with “complete confidence”.

Mr Waterfall also told the jury some of the sixty-plus cows in the field were “bigger and heavier” than ‘Zac’ (the bull alleged to have caused the death), and that it would have been “very hard to tell he was a bull” when all the cattle were “running around in the dark”.

The Prosecution claimed that Mr Waterfall was negligent because he knew the bull could pose a danger to the public.  However, jurors took less than three hours to find Mr Waterfall not guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence, following the four-week trial.

Following the verdict, presiding Judge Gregory Dickinson said the case demonstrated the question of leaving “important health and safety issues to self-regulation” and raised the question of whether Brown Swiss bulls should be added to the list of animals that could not be kept in a field where there is a public right of way.  The Judge also criticised the length of time it took to bring the case to court and hoped “those responsible would look very carefully to see what lessons could be learned”.

Interestingly, he added that there was “an extraordinary conflict of opinions among serious experts” as to the current working practice, adding: “There cannot be anything like a consensus as to what is good practice or not.”
After the case, Melanie Brown, the Detective Chief Inspector who led the Nottinghamshire Police investigation, commented: ”We felt we had enough to bring a prosecution and are disappointed with today’s decision but we understand the complexity and unusual nature of the case and respect the jury’s decision.  I hope this case serves as a reminder to animal owners. From dogs to bulls, you could be held criminally responsible for any injury or death it may cause to a person in a public area.”

Some of the readers' comments in response to the Farmers Guardian on-line article are also interesting and worth highlighting. 

One respondent who hadn't heard of the breed found information on a website stating: “Beware of the Bull:- Please can breeders remember that the Brown Swiss breed is both dairy and dual purpose and bulls must be handled with extreme care as with all other dairy bull breeds. In the interests of safety, members are also reminded that dairy bulls, over 10 months of age, should not be in fields that have public footpaths running through them.“  She could not understand why the jury didn't find the farmer guilty given he had broken the law by keeping a dairy bull in a field with a public right of way (PROW).”  [nb. It is presumed he was acquitted because the animal which was involved in the attack could not be effectively identified. He was not charged with keeping a dairy bull in a field with a PROW.] 

Not surprisingly, although some commentators were critical, others came down on the side of farmers, eg “These animals are a necessity and for some farmers it is perhaps not always possible to keep them away from footpaths. Respect these animals and stay away if in doubt - there are plenty of other places to "ramble" - let the farmers do what they do best – Feeding us!!”  Another suggested it was “irresponsible members of the public” who “can wander about where people are trying to make a living” and added, “Imagine if this happened in a factory or other working place!”

Another considered that the “Health and Safety industry" has an awful lot to answer for. “In this day and age one needs to be evermore aware and alert to all the potential hazards that surround us. Self-preservation should be everyone's watchword.” Another added “……when will people realise that animals are just that, animals. Keep clear, plenty of other footpaths to use, go back to that one when the bull has been moved. It's not just the farmer that has a responsibility.  Anyone out rambling also has a responsibility to themselves and those around them.”

Another goes as far as to suggest that farmers should be allowed to shut down their public footpaths, as the landowner actually owns these paths not the Council and it was a ‘polite allowance’ from previous generations that can be legally revoked.

These are perhaps contentious statements, but deserve to be explored. Especially as MP Bill Wiggins is calling on HSE to collect additional relevant information from investigations - including breed and any links to walkers and/or dogs on footpaths, or ‘trespassing’, TB testing, etc. In his interview on Countryfile Mr Wiggins referred to 24 deaths in the past 4 years.  Clearly a lot needs to be done, but it begs the question: WHAT?

Speakers at the IOSH-FSP ‘Managing Cattle Safely’ Workshop will review the accident history, relevant research and share good practice in relation to cattle handling and design of facilities, including the importance of understanding animal psychology and behaviour.  It will also cover good practice in communicating ‘safety messages’ to farmers.  The Workshop will also explore the contentious question: ‘What more could/should farmers do to protect members of the public?’

NB.  The comments expressed in this article do not represent the views of IOSH.  If you wish to comment on the article, or are interested in the proposed Workshop, please contact Alan Plom, RIG’s Events Coordinator: alan.plom@gmail.com .