The hours are hellish, the travel gruelling, the emotional toll immeasurable: is it any wonder nobody wants to be a traditional country vet any more… Nigel Farndale visits ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ country and finds James Herriot is long gone
Roll the words ‘country vet’ over your tongue. Only three syllables and three vowels, but all the resonance of a tuning fork. Twenty years ago, these words would have evoked James Herriot, the Dales vet turned best-selling author. All Creatures Great and Small, the long-running television series based on his semi-autobiographical novels, was as familiar and comforting as a log fire or a pot of tea.
Farmers wore flat caps and spoke in broad accents, they were amusingly contrary and dour, and they always seemed one step ahead of the earnest, gentlemanly vets.
But even when it first appeared in the late 1970s, All Creatures Great and Small was nostalgic; set in a folksy 1940s England that was rapidly disappearing. Intensive farming was on the way; thundering tractors had long since replaced draught horses and veterinary medicine was becoming more sophisticated. As Herriot himself put it: ‘Years ago, farmers were uneducated and eccentric and said funny things, and we ourselves were comparatively uneducated. We had no antibiotics, few drugs. A lot of time was spent pouring things down cows’ throats. The whole thing added up to a lot of laughs. There’s more science now, but not so many laughs.’
Nowadays, the words ‘country vet’ evoke…… what… Images of mass culls, probably. The stench of pyres. All those diseases that chill at their mere mention: avian flu, BSE, bovine TB, bluetongue, and most notoriously, foot and mouth.
For a time, the vet seemed to be a harbinger of doom or, worse, an agent of an unfeeling government. Just as priests in the Middle Ages were blamed for the spread of the Black Death – superstitious villagers jeered at them – so vets found themselves held in suspicion by some farmers. It is no coincidence that the first vets were referred to as ‘the priests of nature’.
Does the real country vet lie somewhere between these two stereotypes… To find out, I spent a day with one in Wensleydale, North Yorkshire, in part because this was where much of All Creatures Great and Small was filmed, but also because this was where I grew up, on a farm.
A visit from the vet was always worth a stare. To a child, he seemed an exotic creature, always smelling of disinfectant, always using long Latin words when making a diagnosis. One of ours would manage to smoke a pipe as he felt around inside a cow, another always wore a bowtie and had mutton-chop whiskers. He would ask me to fetch him a bucket of hot water, a task that made me feel important. His name was Jack Watkinson and he has since retired. His son, John, aged 48, runs the practice, Hollin Rigg, on the outskirts of Leyburn.
The view from his surgery is one of the most captivating in England: hay meadows framed by dry-stone walls and thick hedgerows that lead the eye up the Ure valley towards the sleeping giant that is Penhill. It is the reason that the television series was filmed here rather than in the more prosaic landscape around Thirsk, which was where Alf …Wight had his practice. That was Herriot’s real name, by the way. He was obliged to take a pen name because British law forbade veterinary surgeons from advertising. The profession has always been blighted by red tape.
The foot and mouth epidemic of 2001 came to within a mile of this idyllic place. It was a stressful time to be a vet. The contiguous cull was a panic measure introduced when state vets realised that the disease was spreading out of control. Farmers who resisted were subjected to dawn raids by government officials accompanied by police in riot gear. Up to 10 million animals were slaughtered – a million of them unnecessarily as they were subsequently shown not to have the disease – and the countryside was turned into a horror show. Plumes of black smoke. The smell of death. An animal holocaust that left witnesses traumatised. Neighbour feared neighbour. Visitors were turned away. The general election was postponed for a month. Researchers at Lancaster University have shown that vets suffered almost as much as farmers, with reports of distress, flashbacks and nightmares – the suicide rate among them increased to four times the national average, and the method was always the same: the same lethal injection that they used to put animals down.
Watkinson is not the depressive type, but he did find the foot and mouth crisis frustrating. ‘It was chaos,’ he says. ‘We felt we were banging our heads against a wall with Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs]. The licensing and the movement restrictions kept us busy, and I was constantly sending Defra letters on behalf of clients pleading to move their stock from fields with no grass.
‘We would promise to lay down plastic sheeting on the road and burn the plastic afterwards, but there was complete intransigence. From the welfare point of view, it was nuts. The lunatics were running the asylum. All local vets were marginalised. Defra officials would come and say it was their show.’
In two specific ways, Watkinson is a traditional country vet. The first is that he has a Y chromosome. In the past decade, 80 per cent of graduates from veterinary college have been women, drawn to the profession by its caring image as well as television docu-soaps and dramas such as Animal Hospital and Vets’ School. This feminisation of the profession has meant a rapid decline in the number of vets willing to do farm work: only one in 10, compared to 50 per cent 20 years ago. That’s the other way in which Watkinson is a traditionalist. He specialises in farm animals and, as such, belongs to a dying breed. The government was warned of an ‘impending shortage’ of large farm animal vets by a parliamentary committee five years ago, and though it pledged an ‘urgent action plan’, no action has been taken, urgent or otherwise. It is predicted that one in five remaining farm vets will quit within 10 years.
Women vets tend to prefer ‘small-animal’ work in cities, dealing with pets mostly, cats and dogs. And why wouldn’t they… Farm work has notoriously unsocial hours, with emergency night calls a regular occurrence. Small-animal work involves hardly any travel, and the increase in pet insurance means that it pays better, covering as it does more expensive operations and longer treatments.
Watkinson is a Yorkshireman born and bred – friendly and wry, but blunt. When his teenage children – he has three, two boys and a girl – opened an email account for him they called him johnmadvet@… The farmers nickname him ‘Rhino Vet’. ‘Because I’m thick-skinned and I know how to charge.’ And when his assistant sees me arrive with a photographer, he says, ‘I see they’ve sent two of you in case John turns violent.’ The old Herriot humour is still here, then.
Which reminds me of the other reason Watkinson is a good starting point. His father, Jack, he of the mutton chops and bow tie, was the chief veterinary adviser for All Creatures Great and Small – mention this, though, and John Watkinson groans. ‘In veterinary circles, Herriot is long gone,’ he says. ‘Ancient history. And I don’t think as a stereotype it was especially helpful.’
Meaning… ‘Since Herriot, there has been an assumption that veterinary work is romantic and you are not supposed to be business-oriented, but why should vets be different… We have a living to make. This business of ……”We love animals and will work for nothing” is just soft. Get real.’
It is 8.30am, the official start of his long working day, though Watkinson has been on call all night. ‘It is very hard to find an assistant these days because no one wants to do the unsocial hours,’ he says. ‘I advertised for 13 months, a one-in-two-evenings-and-weekend rota, without any takers. Only after we formed a partnership with a neighbouring practice and were able to offer a one-in-four rota did we get a response. A lot of adverts these days specify “no on-call”. But that isn’t what we’re about. Yes it costs you 150 quid to take your dog to the vet at midnight, but it bloody well ought to. That’s the free market. It’s your choice.’
His round begins with his weekly visit to Washfold Farm, a state-of-the-art, computerised dairy unit, where the Metcalfe brothers milk 550 pedigree Holstein cows. ‘The veterinary profession follows farming,’ Watkinson says, ‘and the dairy industry has had a 10 per cent attrition rate every year since the 1960s. So there are fewer farms. Metcalfe’s have gone from 100 cows to 550 in the past 20 years, so from our point of view that allows for those dairy farmers in this area who have retired, like your father.’
He always rings five minutes before he arrives on a farm, to make sure that they are ready for him – because, from the moment he gets out of his vehicle, he charges £60 an hour. They are ready: a row of 50 cows, their heads tethered, their computerised records printed out. In the Herriot films, the vet would strip to his waist, but not any more. This vet has his rubber leggings over his wellies already; now he also puts on his baseball cap, rubber apron and a rubber stopper device over his upper arm (his own invention, made from, I think, an old tyre). It is messy working at the business end of a cow. On comes the arm-length surgical glove. In goes the arm. The cow’s eyes bulge.
Today he is doing fertility checks. He flicks their stomachs with his finger, listening for fluid in the uterus. He presses his stethoscope to their wombs. He studies an ultrasound machine, which is pulled on a trolley beside him as he moves down the line. ‘We all use scanners now,’ he says over his shoulder. ‘Though I was trained to palpate the uterus, teaching your hand how to feel. It’s a dying skill that takes a year to learn properly.’
As he works, he issues instructions to Tom, the herdsman who, strangely enough, has an intolerance to milk – to drinking it, that is. ‘Give this girl one percentile,’ Watkinson says.
‘This girl is having twins.’
‘This girl’s geld [barren]. She might make £600 as beef [as opposed to £2,000 at her milking peak].’
The cows are tagged with electronic censors, so that their steps can be measured every day and their fitness monitored. ‘If a cow gives 10 per cent less milk a computer beeps,’ he says. ‘Better feed, better genetics, this is farming as science. The problem is, fertility suffers. With this one, I’m putting in a progesterone implant.’ He does a double shunt to get his arm farther in. Those widening bovine eyes again.
‘I would say the welfare standards of an intensive unit like this are 10 times better than traditional muck and straw. Mind your back, Tom.’ …The cow coughs and the herdsman is splattered.
The stethoscope comes on for a girl with suspected pneumonia. ‘She’s blowing a bit. I’m always listening to them for coughing and bealing [anxious mooing]. Always looking at the condition of their coats and the consistency of the faeces. Always checking their cudding. They get good value for money from their vet because I see 50 in one morning, rather than on a small farm where I might see one. It’s cost effective for them and regular business for me.’
He sets off again in his red 4×4 – number plate J7 VET, loaded with medicines, smelling of disinfectant – and drives quickly along winding country lanes until he reaches the Wilsons’ farm, about 20 minutes away. He has come to look at some scoured Hereford calves. These are kept outside on verdant, bosomy pastureland and will be bought by Waitrose when they are ready, which means that they are ‘farm-assured’. ‘This one’s badly,’ Watkinson says, taking a blood sample. ‘This water bubbling out of his mouth could be cocci [coccidiosis]. But I think it’s just the transition to barley that’s causing the scour. Try putting more fibre in his diet.’
The clock is still running so there is little time for banter. Watkinson is friendly with the farmers, but conscious of their being nervous about him hanging around at the end of a visit. ‘They joke with me that they like to get me off the farm as soon as possible. You’re always doing a bit of this social chatting and having a whinge together, though. It does both of us a lot of good. People like to belly ache. I don’t charge for 10 minutes’ chatting time. I’d soon hear about it if I did. I always record the times on my tape-recorder. If you are not straight, you are soon out of work because you have to face people next day. Everyone knows everyone else. You are scared of your own reputation.’
Do vets have to harden their hearts… ‘Farmers are more sentimental than you would imagine. You have to be tactful and polite. I put my own dog down five years ago and couldn’t believe how upset I was. I must have done hundreds. I suppose livestock are different: putting them down is an economic decision. Since I put my own dog down, I have been more sympathetic. I have seen plenty of hard-bitten farmers start sobbing when I’ve put their favourite sheepdog down. The sheepdogs are their companions and work mates – in the tractor, in the fields.’
Canvas the views of vets around the country and you soon discover that it’s not just the job that has changed, the diseases seem to be constantly adapting and evolving, too. Bluetongue, caused by a virus spread by midges, is a relatively new import, for example, one that will not be eradicated in the foreseeable future. There is also the excitable media to contend with. Claire Knott is a vet in Norfolk who was involved in massive culls of poultry during the outbreak of avian flu there in 2006. ‘One of the biggest additional stresses of the job these days is dealing with the hysteria caused by the media,’ she tells me. ‘There were some farms we could barely get down because the lanes were blocked by TV crews. They were being impossible in my opinion, feeding the frenzy. We had to spend 48 hours just manning the phones, trying to reassure members of the public that their pet chickens were safe.
‘We had one nursery school that wanted to close down because it was near a poultry farm. We had to reassure them it was safe, which it was. There had been outbreaks of avian flu as far back as 1990, but the media paid no attention to them. Only when it was reported that it might possibly carry to humans was there media interest. Reporting a notifiable disease is a nightmare because you are telling a farmer he may be about to lose his livelihood – and that is very distressing for him.’
Meanwhile, back in Wensleydale, Watkinson explains that he is always on the look-out for symptoms of foot and mouth. ‘You have to know what orf is to know it’s not foot and mouth,’ he says. ‘It is passed down the vets’ folk memory how to spot that.’
One of his bugbears is that because so few young vets want to do farming practice these days, the old skills are being forgotten. And the next time there is an outbreak of foot and mouth, or swine fever, or anthrax, it could prove fatal. Another beef of his, if the pun will be excused, is the legal obligation that vets have to give first-aid emergency treatment free.
‘No other countries have this,’ he says. ‘We do charitable work out of our own pockets all the time. We had someone bring in an injured seagull the other day. And we often get tourists bringing in rabbits they’ve run over. Or rabbits with myxie [myxomatosis]. We have a sick-rabbit box at the surgery entrance for Sundays, with a message saying, “When we get back, we’ll put it down.” Some tourists won’t agree to that, so they will knock on every vet’s door all the way home until it is treated.’
Over lunch – sandwiches provided by his wife, Nicky, back at the surgery – we talk about the unsocial hours. ‘A lot of the difficult vetting occurs out of hours in the farming world. It is a major issue as to who is going to do it in the future. There’s a lot of political chat at the moment about the working time directive. Personally, I think we will have to go onto a subscription service for out-of-hours, like the AA. You may not get home calls from GPs any more – they totally abdicate their responsibility after 6pm – yet we all [as taxpayers] pay a subscription for them. They are only half-doctors. Part-timers. They should be ashamed of themselves. Vets get no taxpayers’ money. We are 100 per cent private.’
Another beef is about what he calls ‘lady vets’. He describes himself as ‘quite cynical’ on the subject. ‘It’s rough, physical work being a farm vet. And a lot of women are dropping out because they can’t cope with the hours. What’s it called these days… The work-life balance…’ Claire Knott, incidentally, has three children, but didn’t take a career break, just 12 weeks off for each. Though, tellingly, her eldest daughter is training to be a vet at Bristol.
Nicky Paull, the new president of the British Veterinary Association, also has an interesting perspective on this. She has a large practice in Cornwall, where the controversial issue at the moment is badger-culling to stop the spread of bovine TB. It has divided the countryside, with farmers and vets pitted against animal-lovers (she is all for culling, but Defra has ruled it out for the moment). Hers is, in other words, a physically demanding farming practice.
‘I encountered sexism when I started here in 1979,’ she says. ‘When I appeared on farms, I would be met with a look of horror. It was like they were seeing a female vicar for the first time. It’s worst with cows because I’m quite slight and short as well – 5ft 2in – so I need to stand on something. I sometimes wish I could get my arm in farther, but you develop techniques to compensate for the lack of brute force.’
She reckons there is no farm work that she cannot do as well as a man, however, and some pastoral work she might do better. ‘Being a vet can sometimes be like being a counsellor,’ she says. ‘During foot and mouth, farmers were very isolated – not being allowed visitors on the farm – so when the vet visited they wanted to talk. I remember there was one farmer who I was quite worried about. He was so depressed. I just sat in his kitchen and we talked and talked until his mood lifted and I felt it was safe to leave him on his own.’
The original set of the interior of the surgery used in All Creatures Great and Small is now located at the Richmondshire Museum, in Richmond, about a 12-mile drive from Watkinson’s practice. He considers this a short run compared to some of his journeys, a 40-minute drive not being unusual. ‘And they are slow miles,’ he says. ‘Not fast miles on a motorway.’ …The rising fuel costs are a problem for him, not least because he does not begin his clock until he gets onto the farm.
He has come to inspect a small flock of Wensleydale sheep. Many farmers don’t consider it viable to call out a vet for a sheep, because the visit costs more than the sheep is worth. The owner of these sheep, though, believes it is her ethical duty to pay for treatment – she even believes in ethical castration with painkillers, which is not something more traditional farmers go in for. Foot rot is the problem today.
As he works in a pen in the corner of the field, Watkinson gives me an anatomy lesson, showing me an ulcer in the joint of the foot. ‘Farmers call it scald. You can’t pare that away. It’s jiggered. I’m going to have to amputate it.’ As he is holding the ewe on her back, he asks me to fetch him a bucket of water. He freezes the claw, then uses cheese wire attached to two metal rods to saw it off, another improvised device. It was given to him by his father when he qualified. Folk memory again.
‘Actually, these cutters go back to Bingham’s day,’ he says. Bingham was a local legend, the vet in this area before Jack Watkinson. He had fought in the First World War, been a Mountie and used to work with Alf …Wight; indeed he features in the Herriot books and was such a hard drinker that customers would come to the pub rather than the surgery to find him. My father recalls seeing a swaying Bingham having to steady himself against the car when he turned up at the farm one day on a call.
‘He was quite a character,’ …Watkinson says. ‘There was another vet round here, MacDonald, who would never itemise a bill, just write, “For services rendered.” Everyone would pay up because they trusted him.’
On the subject of folk memory, I remind Watkinson of the time he came to visit a sick cow on our farm, one that he suspected had eaten some electric fence wire and got it tangled in its gut. He opened up the cow but couldn’t find the wire and, days later, the cow made a full recovery. He said at the time he must have let the evil spirits out.
‘What I meant was that I’d made the wrong diagnosis,’ he says now, with a grin. ‘Luckily for us, nature has a way of curing itself sometimes.’