A POPULAR farm labourer suffered fatal injuries after being hit by a car as he helped to move sheep on an unlit country road while he was wearing dark clothing, an inquest heard.

A police accident investigator said the collision which caused the death on January 20 last year of Chris Ritson –a fit and healthy man – may have happened because he ‘severely underestimated’ how conspicuous he was to the approaching driver.

He died from multiple injuries.

An inquest in Cockermouth heard that on the day of the tragedy Mr Ritson, a 64-year-old self-employed farm labourer, was working with sheep belonging to farmer Stephen Graham, who lived on the farm next door and regarded him as a close friend.

He was with Mr Ritson and another man as they worked with his sheep on land near Lanercost Priory but he left at 4.30pm.

At 5.20pm, he got a call from Mr Ritson’s colleague telling him to return as quickly as possible.

Paramedics were already at the scene.

Mr Graham described being surprised that at time of the accident Mr Ritson was not wearing the high-visibility jacket he bought for him at Christmas, 2018. After the tragedy, he found the jacket on the passenger seat of Mr Ritson’s car.

He said he had told the two men they could move the sheep the following morning if it got dark before they finished their sheep ‘dosing and scanning’ work.

The hearing heard that the accident happened as Mr Ritson and his colleague were moving the flock from one field to another. The inquest heard from the woman driving the car that hit Mr Ritson.

An experienced motorist, with 33 years driving experience in the UK, Eeke van Gulick said the accident happened at 5.20pm as she was driving to her home. It was dark at the time, she said. She had driven that stretch of road multiple times in all conditions.

Describing what happened, she said she suddenly saw something moving on the road in front of her, ten yards away. She immediately braked and a split second later realised it was a person waving his arms. She swerved but was unable to avoid the collision.

Mr Ritson suffered what Coroner Dr Nicholas Shaw said were ‘un-survivable injuries’.

A police accident investigation found no evidence of mechanical defect with Mrs van Gulick’s car, nor any inappropriate actions on her part.

The speed limit was 60mph but there was no evidence of excessive speed, or distraction, or any relevant medical episodes.

Police accident investigator PC Christopher Whittaker suggested Mr Ritson “severely underestimated” how visible he would be as the car approached.

By the time she was able to see him, Mrs van Gulick had insufficient time to react and avoid the collision, said the officer.

Dr Shaw noted that Mr Ritson habitually wore his high-visibility jacket but on this one occasion, having begun working with the sheep in the afternoon, he did not go back to his car for it before starting to move the sheep.

“It was a simple error,” said the coroner.

“Ninety-nine times out of a 1,000 it would not have made any difference.”

He said he believed the dark, non-reflective clothing worn by Mr Ritson on that unlit road was a major factor in the tragedy.

Mr Ritson’s wife Seema provided a moving statement about her husband, saying they had worked hard together to improve their home and their own flock of sheep. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world, she said.

As a boy, he spent hours observing plants, birds and animals rather than heading home after school and he had a natural understanding of how creatures co-exist. He had continued to add to his knowledge throughout his life.

“He instinctively understood what he observed,” she said. He was also an enthusiastic gardener and plantsman and had an artistic side, manifested through work in watercolours, oils and ink drawings. Though he lived within ten miles to his childhood home, he was also a keen traveller, visiting European destinations, which had recently included the High Pyrenees and the Alps, as well as the Scottish Highlands and Islands.

She said: “He had a huge circle of friends and an inner circle. So many people paid their respects at his funeral at Lanercost Priory that many had to stand outside.”

A local clergyman said it was a privilege to have known Mr Ritson and be among his close circle of friends.

He said that before long they would come to know just how fortunate they were to love him and to have been loved by him.

There was now a massive hole in her life but she would always give thanks for how happy her husband made her.

Coroner Dr Nicholas Shaw commented that the fact of Mr Ritson not wearing his high visibility clothing at the time of the accident had been a "major factor" in the tragedy. He recorded a conclusion that he died as the result of a road traffic accident.