Have quad bike, will travel

CLAIRE POWELL

THE combination of a quad bike plus breeding sheep and cattle are proving an effective medicine for paralysed Isle of Islay shepherd Clark Ferguson.

Clark was paralysed from the waist down in 1998 by Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an acute disease of the peripheral nervous system, which affects about 1,500 people in the UK annually.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome inflames the nerves in the arms and legs, causing sudden weakness, leading to limb paralysis. The condition gives virtually no warning that it is about to strike, but research shows that more than half of victims suffered from stress, influenza or a throat or intestinal infection in the previous six weeks. It is neither contagious nor hereditary.

Intensive physiotherapy is an important part of the cure, but medical facilities are limited on Islay. So when bachelor Clark Ferguson returned to the cottage he shares with his brother Sandy after 18 months in hospital, he was resigned to spending the rest of his days in a wheelchair.

Until that miserable day in 1998 when GBS struck, Clark had been a respected shepherd all his working life on the Isle of Islay. The last 20 of his working years had been at Rockside Farm, a 2,500-acre unit farmed by Mark and Rohaise French on the west coast of this Inner Hebridean island.

In September 2001, the Frenches launched the Islay Fine Food Company, supplying fresh and smoked meats to mainland customers. By the time the 2002 lambing season came around, Mark and Rohaise French were snowed under with work created by their new venture.

"One morning we were completely swamped, and we asked Clark if he would like to go round the lambing ewes on his quad bike", said Mark French. Clark eagerly agreed, so astride his quad bike and armed with a CB radio to make contact with the Frenches if there was a problem, he set off to check the Rockside "maternity field".

Since then, every morning other than Mondays (his hospital morning), Clark has been out on his quad, ranging over the 2,500 acres of Rockside - which includes coastal grazing in the sand dunes on the North Atlantic coast - checking the welfare of the several hundred sheep and 150 breeding cows and their progeny.

With Clark unable to dismount from his bike to open and close gates, Mark and Rohaise rapidly embarked on a gate re-hanging programme. Now Rockside is one of those joyous farms where every gate gracefully swings open and closed, no more dragging and half carrying. The fastening was also adapted - from heavy spring-loaded bolts to rope loops.

Any problems with the livestock are reported to the Frenches over the radio. "It&rsquos wonderful to have Clark&rsquos experienced and knowledgeable eyes looking over our stock, while we get on with trying to get meats ready in time to catch the mainland ferry," said Mark French. "We know that if he does radio in, then it is a real problem, and we need to go".

"It&rsquos a very reassuring feeling to see him away in the distance, watching over everything and everybody," said Mark French, "and obviously so very, very much better than only ever seeing him house-bound in his wheelchair."

For Clark, his four-wheeled liberty has given his flagging spirits a huge boost. "I&rsquom so grateful to Rohaise and Mark for letting me ride my quad around Rockside. I&rsquove worked with livestock all my life, and that was one of the hardest parts of my illness - not being able to be among stock. I really can&rsquot tell you just how bad that felt. Now I&rsquom not only in among sheep and cattle almost every day, but really do feel I am doing something useful, especially if I am able to spot an animal which needs attention. That really does feel good."

Most livestock men regard the regular checking of livestock as a necessary chore; for Clark it is pleasure that, just a few months ago, he thought he would never enjoy again. Now he is back among the creatures he loves and is rebuilding his feeling of self-worth.

Clark&rsquos patrols have brought an unanticipated but huge bonus. Although each Monday morning he receives physiotherapy at Bowmore Hospital on Islay, Clark&rsquos muscles needed much more than a weekly workout after his 18 months in hospital and almost two years in a wheelchair, and he was making very little progress.

However, thanks to his trips round Rockside, Clark had strengthened his muscles so much that, by early October, he was able to take half a dozen steps, supported by a zimmer frame. By early December he had graduated to walking sticks.

In the last eight months, he has made dramatic physical progress and has discovered for himself that improvement in his mobility is possible. With improved mobility comes increased independence, taken for granted by most of us, but of huge value to Clark.

Thanks to his four-wheeled bike taking him around his bovine and ovine four-legged friends, Clark Ferguson is not only getting better, but also aware that he really can get much better.