Ever since 12 children became seriously ill after contracting E Coli at a farm in Surrey, there have been concerns over the safety of taking youngsters to visit animals. Godstone Farm, which allowed visitors to pet and feed the animals, shut its gates in September 2009 after 36 cases of E Coli were found by the Health Protection Agency.


A recent report into the incident discovered that safety measures on the farm could have been improved, as the owners relied on visitors washing their hands. Straw at the farm was also sometimes left for three months before it was changed.

Professor George Griffin from St George’s University in London, who led the inquiry, told the Telegraph that farms needed to introduce more vigorous cleaning of petting areas to keep children safe. He also revealed it was possible for children to pet animals on a farm safely if the animals are kept clean, on fresh bedding and handwashing facilities are available. "Families should be able to enjoy these places and leave feeling they have had a jolly good time and leave feeling safe," he said.

Experts have also said it’s important that children are still allowed to visit farms. "Risks need to be kept to a minimum, but if regulations become too excessive the danger is that many farms will be unwilling to welcome visitors,” Paul Bettison, chairman of the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services, told the BBC. "The burden of safety inspection mustn't become so high that children can't make regular visits to farms, and see animals like pigs and goats up close."

Children under 5 should also be very closely supervised. Microbiologist Professor Hugh Pennington told the Telegraph that while there was no reason for children that age to avoid farms altogether, they were ''the most difficult part of the population to get to wash their hands'' while also the most likely to touch the animals.

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Stay safe and healthy

  • First rule is 'wash your hands' frequently. The E Coli bacterium is transmitted through contact with animal faeces, traces of which may be on the sheep's wool or on the gates and straw. Thorough handwashing is essential to prevent the bug entering the human digestive system.
  • It’s also essential that you teach your kids not to put their hands in their mouths (watch out for thumb suckers) until they have scrubbed their hands. There will be places to wash your hands dotted around the farm, with anti-bacterial handwash. Make sure you visit these regularly, and each time before you eat.
  • Take some antibacterial wipes and hand gel along too.
  • Supervise your children while they’re petting the animals and make sure they don't enter any of the pens unaccompanied.
  • Pregnant women need to be similarly scrupulous about handwashing and are advised to avoid pregnant sheep and baby lambs during the lambing season owing to the prevalence of toxoplasmosis.