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Rural vet shortage threatens farms
and communities

THE VETERINARY profession faces a crisis, according to an in-depth report by MPs that says a shortage of vets with farm animal experience could leave many rural areas without a local vet. The worst case scenario is that Britain would be unable to deal with a major disease outbreak.

The report warns that the Government faces a problem because of a critical shortage of farm vets at a time when it is putting increasing demands on them to carry out animal surveillance and welfare tasks.

Only two years after the foot and mouth crisis, and with bovine tuberculosis at record levels, some parts of the country have been left with little or no veterinary surveillance on farms.

Long hours, physically demanding workloads and declining incomes have driven vets from country practices to the dependable timetables of the more lucrative small animal and pet practices.

According to the report by the environment, food and rural affairs select committee, of about 3,000 practices with 10,000 vets, only 960 carried out farm work, and those that did spent just 15 per cent of their time on farms.

The report warns that "the economics of farming is leading to less use of veterinary services and is further reducing the attractiveness of large animal practices".

It adds that this comes at a time when "the Government's animal health and welfare and veterinary surveillance strategies appear to require a greater on-farm presence of veterinary surgeons".

The report further warns that if no action is taken, the Government could find it difficult to put in place a prevention plan as part of its proposed animal welfare strategy and its veterinary surveillance strategy, unveiled in Whitehall last week.

The Veterinary Surveillance Strategy involves a new computer system to collate information from vets, abattoirs and livestock associations but it places increasing demands on vets to monitor animals.

Unveiling the strategy, Jim Scudamore, the Government Chief Vet, warned that with increased travel and changing climate, animal disease epidemics were expected to become much more frequent and needed better surveillance to be controlled. He said the Government faced a "conundrum" in reconciling diminishing numbers of farm vets without paying vets to undertake the greater surveillance demands being placed upon them.

Peter Jinman, a former president of the British Veterinary Association, said that without the Government agreeing to paying vets the strategy could fail.

"We are already fiddling while Rome burns. Many practices are considering already whether to continue their farm practice," he said. "It is most acute in remote areas where there are fewer large farmers to keep the vets going. The average age of farm vets is rising and surveys show few graduates going into farm-based businesses."

"The costs of BSE and foot and mouth are huge compared with what we are looking for here. These are no longer events that take place every 30 years but ones that are increasingly frequent."

In their report, the MPs warn the Government that it should be proactive in encouraging student vets to enter large animal practices. They also gave a clear warning that the findings of the recent Competition Commission report into prescription-only veterinary medicines would drive further large animal vets into small animal practices.

"We are concerned that neither DEFRA nor the Competition Commission appears to have a clear picture of how veterinary practice income is derived, and what the economic impact of the proposals would be on the provision of large animal services," the report said.

Depriving vets of income from selling medicines "could lead to a reduction" in farm animal vets "which could, in turn, affect DEFRA’s ability to achieve the objectives of its animal health and welfare strategy and its surveillance strategy".