Veterinary life has changed immeasurably in a short space of time.
Indeed, the picture of independent mixed practice depicted by the James Herriot-inspired BBC television series All Creatures Great and Small nearly 30 years ago tells of an era when the profession was very different to how it is today.
So explains Anne Norton, who counts herself lucky to have begun her career when Herriot traditions were widely embraced.
Mrs Norton, an established veterinary surgeon in her own right as well as being married to one – Julian Norton, The Yorkshire Post columnist who stars in The Yorkshire Vet TV show – says corporate ownership of veterinary practices has changed her industry, creating a manpower crisis which sees many young vets quit early.
Six months ago, a report by the British Veterinary Association (BVA) dismissed presumptions that pay and working hours alone were causing the trend, instead the profession was challenged to take a long, hard look at itself, with junior vets citing a lack of role models and an absence of feeling valued.
“Veterinary life is changing so dramatically but it’s a profession that isn’t very good at coping with change,” said Mrs Norton, who works at Rae, Bean and Partners in Boroughbridge alongside Mr Norton.
“Mixed practice is dwindling as a concept. Vet schools are now encouraging students to specialise straight away but I think you need a broad range of experience first because the type of work you think you might like, you might not like, and vice-versa.”
This early narrowing of choices may be a factor in why young vets walk away, as well as wider industry dynamics, Mrs Norton said.
“The corporate takeover of independent practices has caused a big spin. It’s brought about a manpower crisis and has changed the way vets progress through the profession. Vets today often have less support from their senior colleagues than we did when we started.
“On the face of it, there should be more vets. There are more vet schools taking more students but there is a big problem with retention.”
The veterinary industry has acknowledged the retention crisis, with the recent BVA report concluding: “The provision of inspiring role models, the creation of an environment where individuals feel they fit in and ensuring that employees feel valued and admired for the work that they do would likely improve the experiences of vets and improve the retention of skilled and motivated staff.”
Both Mr and Mrs Norton trained at Cambridge, beginning their careers in the mid-1990s when practices were legally required to be owned by veterinarians. But a rule change in 1999 led to large firms buying up many independent practices and, by May 2018, an estimated 1,700 UK practices were under corporate ownership. Some in the industry predict 70 per cent of all practices will be owned by big companies by 2022.
The way Mrs Norton sees it, pressures on young vets has intensified and senior vets need to act as role models.
“I think pet owners now invest more of their lives in their pets so they expect a higher standard of care, which is a good thing, but it makes it more of an unforgiving place for people learning their trade. That is why it is so important for those of us with years of experience to help and support those new to the profession.”
She said she was hopeful things will improve.
“The corporate march has probably slowed down and there could be a re-emergence of independent practices. I think younger vets with a bit of experience will realise there’s a niche for small independent practices setting up again.”
Mrs Norton’s career in mixed practice has taken her from Hampshire and the Cotswolds to North Yorkshire, where her husband has become a TV star.
Channel 5 hit The Yorkshire Vet is now in its eighth series and the mother-of-two has featured as a vet on the show for the first time in recent weeks.
“I’d been on previously as the wife with the kids but I’m a lot happier being on as a vet doing what I do,” she said.