Veterinary world has changed beyond recognition

Willie Anderson, vet and president of Huby and Sutton Show, feeding a small herd of Long Horn cattle.
Willie Anderson, vet and president of Huby and Sutton Show, feeding a small herd of Long Horn cattle.
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Unless you know different Willie Anderson could well be the longest-serving, still-practicing vet in Yorkshire. As his name suggests he’s from Scotland originally but settled in Sutton on the Forest after he qualified.

Willie has seen massive changes in farming; in animal husbandry and in the way vets operate since he went into practice 54 years ago. Next week he will attend Huby and Sutton Show as the show vet but also as show president and chairman of the show council.

“Veterinary general practices have turned around completely. They used to be 85 per cent large animals and 15 per cent small animals. It’s now 15 per cent large and 85 per cent small. We used to be so busy making calls on farms that the only time small animal veterinary work could be undertaken was on an evening.

“I would work every second night and every second weekend. That was the norm back then. Our practice that at one time was called Anderson, Robertson, Fagan & Howard has since become Tower Vets with seven locations around the York area. There’s now just one vet who does all the night work.

“At one time vets were doing so many jobs when they came to a farm. Through the 60s we were dehorning cattle, castrating pigs, lambing difficult ewes and docking lambs. Farmers were much more reliant on their ‘veterinary’ as Alf Wight wrote about in his James Herriot books and as Christopher Timothy portrayed in the TV series All Creatures Great & Small. Alf Wight’s practice was the neighbouring one to ours.

“I was basically a cattle vet and looking back at the diaries from the 70s I would be making anywhere between 10-15 visits a day. In those days half our income was from Government and Ministry contracts for TB and brucellosis testing.

“Vets now make routine visits to farms once a fortnight. There are also many specialist practices too. There are no horse or pig vets in general practices anymore.

“The change in ethics has been perhaps one of the most dramatic developments. You couldn’t advertise, as competition was seen to be wrong. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons would talk of the animals in your area being under your care. That’s all gone. Today vets are often tied in with feed companies.”

Willie was born in Galston in the Irvine Valley, four miles from Kilmarnock where his father was a dairy farmer and when hand milking was still a way of life. The herd of 40 Ayrshires has long since disappeared.

“My elder brother took over the farm in the traditional way that many farms are handed down by the generations. My nephew has the family farm today but he has gone into beef and sheep. It’s a sad thing but there are now hardly any red and white cows in Ayrshire. The dairy herds that remain are largely black and white.

“I studied at Glasgow University’s veterinary school and spent a year after that working in the surgery department. My thought at the time was that because I’d been farming born and bred and had been around large animals all my life it would stand me in good stead and set the balance right if I undertook some small animal work.”

Just when Willie was easing down on his workload after 40 years in practice along came the horror of foot and mouth disease. “What I found was that whilst it was a horrendous time for those farmers who had to have their stock destroyed either because they were infected or because they were in a contiguous cull situation it was even worse financially for those who still had their stock.

“The restrictions on animal movement, having to pay for additional feed and then receiving less than a normal market price because of the situation meant that they were in a far worse position than those who had lost their stock and had received compensation.”

Willie tells of how he was drafted into the nerve centre that was the MAFF office in Lawnswood in Leeds.

“They needed someone to liaise with private practice and the Government because nobody knew what was going on. The staffing at Lawnswood was increased from 70 to around 700 as civil servants were pulled in. Calls were being fielded from farmers in distress and who needed help. Everyone was a special case and understandably with their livelihood threatened wanted to be treated as such. There was talk of possible suicides, it really was that bad.

“For 23 weeks I sent out a newsletter explaining what was going on and keeping everyone up to date with the latest developments. I went into the MAFF offices for the first time at Easter 2001 and was there until the last case in September that year.

“The disease had spread to Thirsk and MAFF were terrified foot and mouth would get into the East Riding.

“The only job I refused outright to do was when there was the huge outbreak around Settle. They wanted me to go out and inject 1000 lambs to put them to sleep whilst their mothers were being culled.”

Willie speaks fondly of when the Sutton on the Forest area had many more dairy cows.

“We have some of the best grassland around here and 10-15 years ago we had 1,000 more dairy cows than now.

“The sad thing is that Mr Cameron doesn’t even talk about agriculture at all.”