Leech farming on the up in Wales again
NewsTuesday 13 August 2013
Here in the UK we farm plenty of animals - cows, sheep, pigs, chicken, turkeys and more. However, how many of you know someone who farms leeches?
Around 200 years ago, Wales was claiming to be the leech-farming capital of Europe, and it is once again back on the map.
The country of Wales is now farming around 60,000 leeches annually, which are being used in hospitals around Europe each year.
However, it was back in the Victorian era, when leeches were at their most popular. During those times, Britain used over 42 million leeches a year for medical blood-letting.
The leech industry used to be worth around £1m a year, which is a lot for Victorian prices. A quarter of those profits were made in Wales.
At the beginning of last century, the practice of using leeches died out. This was partly down to the fact that the leech was being hunted almost to extinction as well as the benefits of blood-letting getting called into question.
The 60,000 leeches a year, that are being provided for hospitals throughout Europe, makes Swansea’s Biopharm the largest of its kind in the UK.
The man in charge of raising all of the leeches in the farm, from cocoon to casualty, is Carl Peters-Bond.
Speaking to the BBC, he said: "The main reason the practice died out was because, after 4,000 years, people finally cottoned on to the fact that blood-letting simply didn't work.
"For millennia physicians had believed in the four humours: blood, phlegm and black and green bile. The theory was that by draining some of the blood you'd somehow be able to restore the body's balance and cure virtually any illness."
Those people who weren’t able to afford a leech for blood-letting still had to go through the process, however, they had to have their blood let by simply slitting open a vein.
In more recent times, however, the use of leeches has become more specialised and more effective.
Mr Peters-Bond continued: "For most of the last century leeches became associated with quack medicine, which is really unfair, as they're fascinating little things.
"They have over 300 tiny teeth in three sets of jaws which latch on to their host. To keep the blood flowing they introduce a quite powerful anticoagulant chemical."
These amazing little creatures are now perfect for use in microsurgery, especially when severed fingers or toes have been reattached.
"Because whilst blood can flow into the injured area through large arteries,” continued Mr Peters-Bond.
“Often the smaller veins which should be taking it away again are damaged and the blood will collect and eventually the tissue will die.
"So while the veins are repairing themselves surgeons can pop on a leech, which will drain up to 50mls before dropping off, and afterwards the blood will keep flowing through the wound for around another 10 hours."
Wales first became a leech-farming hotspot owing to geography.
In common with Somerset and Cumbria, the mud-flats of Pembrokeshire and Gwent provide an ideal habitat.
They would have traditionally been harvested by women in one of the most bizarre methods possible. The women would lift their skirts and wade into muddy pools allowing the leeches to attach themselves to their bare legs. They would then take them to the apothecary or specialist leech dealer.
For more information about leeches and leech farming, click here.
Picture: Oakley Originals