VET’S DIARY: What does the future hold for the local vet?

Agriculture has gone through some enormous changes over the past 100 years, writes Steve Carragher.

From the use of heavy horses to plough the land to huge machines capable of doing the work of a dozen farm staff, retired farmers have seen the industry develop into an efficient machine capable of huge output, whether it be grain, fruit, vegetables or livestock.

So, what is the future for the modern farmer and what of the future of the local vet?

The Carragher family went on a trip to Edinburgh recently, which involved a visit to the National Museum of Scotland.

Among the usual displays of racing cars, rockets and Egyptian artefacts was a fascinating demonstration of robotics by the University of Edinburgh.They showed how robots are beginning to make science fiction a reality, with the development of robotic prostheses which replace a lost or absent limb with a fully functional, intelligent limb and robots which can search disaster areas replacing the eyes and ears of a human being.

Already we are seeing the application of this technology in the agriculture sector with robotic milking machines becoming more prevalent in dairies.

Genetic modification is already a fiercely debated topic with good arguments for and against, however, the driving force behind GM of reduced water consumption, pesticides and inputs will no doubt fuel further research in this area.

The ability to produce meat, or meat-like products, from stem cells extracted from cattle muscle tissue is already a reality. ‘World’s first lab-grown burger eaten in London’ was the headline.

Where will this leave the farmer and the farm vet?

Like our farming cousins, the farm vet has seen many changes over the past 100 years, but I am convinced that in our corner of the country, there will remain a role for the livestock vet.

Our role has already changed from mainly emergency work to predominantly routine work of pregnancy testing, blood testing and vaccination programmes. I see this trend continuing as ‘prevention is better than cure’.

The emergence of novel diseases such as the recent outbreaks of Schmallenberg disease and Bluetongue are likely to continue due to climatic changes. These will provide new challenges for the agricultural and veterinary professions alike.

The occurrence of zoonotic diseases (those which can affect man or other animals) such as avian and swine flu are likely to increase due to the availability of world travel.

The impact of this on the local vet may be increased surveillance of livestock populations as an early indicator of zoonotic disease.

Despite scientific advances, I suspect there will always be a place for a traditional farm vet in Northumberland.

For generations to come, I expect the Cheviot hills to be grazed extensively by sheep and cattle which, no matter what robots the scientists develop, will need to be farmed by experienced stockmen and their health and welfare protected by experienced veterinary surgeons.

So, hopefully we will be here for a bit longer yet.