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Spence family tragedy was wake-up call on farm safety, says Ulster Rugby hero farmer Simon Best

By Rachel Martin

Published 18/12/2015

Brothers Simon and Rory Best at their family farm in Poyntzpass
Brothers Simon and Rory Best at their family farm in Poyntzpass
Nevin Farrell at his farm
Nevin Spence

A former Ulster Rugby star has told how the tragic death of Nevin Spence made him more conscious of farm safety.

Three members of the Spence family were killed in a slurry tank accident at their farm near Hillsborough in September 2012.

Simon Best, a former Ulster and Ireland captain, recalled the moment he heard about the tragedy.

"We found out at around half seven at night. It was a day when Rory had the day off and we were both working together. We just stopped everything when we heard," he said.

Best was speaking at an Ulster Farmers' Union meeting in Newtownards.

Describing how the tragedy made him change how he thought about farm safety, he also recalled how he suffered a near-miss in a farm accident as a teenager that left his finger disfigured.

Best, who retired for health reasons in 2008, said he now regularly discussed safety guidelines with staff.

"Any of the changes I've made, they actually don't cost a lot," he added. "It's very simple some of the things - risk assessments, keeping spreadsheets.

"I have three guys working for me and I make sure that they're aware and I'll talk it through with them."

Best also told the group about the near-miss he had on the farm as a 15-year-old.

"There are always things that you don't think of as near-misses until you look back on them. I actually lost the top of my finger when I was 15 and working on a baler," he said.

"It actually taught me a very, very valuable lesson, and lucky enough they were able to sew it back on - not very straight, mind!

"I was oiling the chain on a straw baler, I was just letting it run and I cleaned a bit of straw away and, just like that, the chain caught it - I didn't even think I was anywhere near the chain.

"The chain caught me, took my hand around the cog and it hit the guard and pulled the top of the finger out. The guy who worked with us was driving the combine.

"There were only the two of us around - I think he was more traumatised than me, but it taught me a valuable lesson."

Best's rugby talents were spotted when he was studying agriculture at Newcastle University.

He joined Ulster in 1999, making 118 appearances, and made his international debut in 2003.

He captained Ulster in 2005 and went on to captain Ireland during their 2007 tour of Argentina. The 38-year-old retired eight years ago after worries over his irregular heartbeat. Today Best farms more than 1,000 acres of mixed cereal crops and 60 pedigree Aberdeen Angus cattle with his father and fellow rugby hero brother Rory.

He said that growing up on a farm had given him a work ethic that helped his rugby career.

"I grew up around the marts, Poyntzpass and Markethill. When I grew up all I wanted to do was go back to the farm," he added.

"But my dad wasn't ready to retire or to have someone come with new ideas and want to change things, so my rugby career gave me a chance to go out and see the rest of the world."

Nine people died on farms in 2014/15 - five more than the year before.

Ed Patterson of NFU Mutual's risk management division said farmers often tell him the reason they have not had any major incidents is because they are "lucky".

He added: "But when you start to ask questions the luck soon disappears and I see what it is - they're the farmers who consistently keep good practices such as looking after machinery and having good handling facilities; they keep control of the situation and invest in keeping themselves safer."

Last week, a man died on a farm in Dromore, Co Tyrone, when he was crushed by a digger he had been working under.

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