Rural veterinary practice – a life of change (1970s – 2018)

Location : Beccles, Marshes

Mike is the senior partner for the Three Rivers Veterinary Group in Beccles. Mike was born in 1951 on a farm in Upwell, Cambridgeshire in the Fens.

My father was from Manchester and he’d moved down to Upwell in Cambridgeshire to work in a family business called Harry Wood Ltd. This was primarily a fruit and veg merchants but they did also own a fruit farm at Upwell as well as a potato packing plant. My mother was a local farmer’s daughter and my parents met when he came down to Upwell. In those days this was a large fruit growing area and I do remember seeing the tram that used to run alongside the road collect all the produce and take it to Wisbech markets.

Mike aged 10

In 1965 my father decided he wanted to farm in his own right so he bought Grange Farm, Barsham near Beccles. This was another fruit growing area but the farm also had outdoor pigs. Land was valued around £200 per acre then so he had to borrow money to buy this farm. I recall worrying about that a lot even though I was only 14 years old. We didn’t actually move to the farm for a couple of years whilst my father continued to manage the business in Upwell, but in 1967 we did move into a cottage on the farm as we couldn’t afford the farmhouse. Then in 1968, ‘69 and ‘70 came three devastating years for the fruit farming industry. This was all happening before the Common Market and was caused by trade agreements which the government had made, especially with South Africa for imported Cape apples and Australia for Granny Smith imports. This together with a glut of fruit in the home market and also plenty of fruit in people’s gardens crashed the prices. We were close to financial ruin so Dad took a job and worked in engineering whilst I ran the farm with my mother.

In 1971 changes came and we managed to turn the farm round and there were certain things that saved us. Firstly there were a lot of frosts that year with bad weather, and also there was a shortage of fruit, particularly apples. So we started to sell directly to the public, basically pick your own. We opened the orchards and it really caught on. Decimalisation in February 1971 then led to a general increase in prices for produce and everything else. But horticulture was still a volatile farming business – very much as pigs and poultry used to be. I learnt quickly a lot about business during that time and it was a hard lesson at the age of 17 or 18! I grew up very quickly and I also learnt that blaming the government or other people was futile. Nobody owes you a living and you have to make your own luck and success in life. It gave me a steely determination to succeed later in life when building my veterinary business. I had decided that I wanted to be a vet at twelve years of age and I used to spend my holidays with Geoff Oakley who was a vet from Noble, Oakley and Jackson in March, Cambridgeshire near to where we lived at Upwell. I went with him on his rounds and learnt a lot. He was a very kind person and an inspiration to me and encouraged me to follow my career.

The early years

I managed to get the A-level grades I required to get into vet school in 1971 and went to the Royal Veterinary College in London. I greatly enjoyed my student years and made friends for life. But I couldn’t wait to get out and start to practise veterinary surgery. I qualified in 1976 and joined Griffiths & Partners in Cullompton Devon. This was a large practice for the time with two branches. There were eight vets at Tiverton and seven in Cullompton. I’d been to the practice as a student and had spent time there. There were a number of new graduates there at the time and we had a great camaraderie but we were thrown in at the deep end and also worked very hard. On my first day I was given the keys to a fairly clapped out car, a map and nine calls to make. To see caesareans on cows in the evenings was not unusual and we were quite often up most of the night on farm calls. However, I was there for four years and learnt an incredible amount in that time including the start of health planning and changing from fire brigade work and treating sick cows to preventing disease. The work was 90% farm and 10% small animal. I was offered a partnership but although it was a great practice and very advanced in its thinking especially for farm work I felt the business model was not right for me and that I would be unable to change it and run the business in the way I wanted. I therefore started to look further afield and an opportunity arose in Beccles in my home town at the practice of Roe & James. They had just moved from a converted town house where they used to run the surgery, to a purpose-built practice to accommodate the growing small animal side of the business and this was quite unique at the time.

So back to Norfolk

There were very few practices that had purpose-built premises. I joined the partnership within the year, in November, and the three of us – Mr Roe, Mr James and myself ran the practice. I was assured that our borrowings to fund the growth of the practice were well budgeted for and also satisfied that we were in charge of the business and not the banks. It was then about 75% farm work and horses, and 25% small animal. We used to do the farm work in the mornings and then an afternoon surgery which was an open surgery so you never really knew how many people would just turn up. You could open the door and there’d be twenty people already waiting. And then the phone could go off for a farm emergency and we would suddenly be very short-handed. But I remember that in those days people didn’t seem to mind the wait and there was always great camaraderie in the waiting room.

With Peter Roe and Bill James

How times change! Peter Roe retired in1990 and in 1993 we acquired a Loddon vets practice from the owner Gwyn Evans who was retiring. In 1996 Bill James then retired so I became the senior partner. By that time we had increased to five vets and from there the practice grew. In 1996 I studied for a new certificate qualification which had been introduced by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in cattle health and production. This was a very great inspiration to me. In 1997 we started up a practice in Poringland and another one in 1998 at Kessingland. Still further growth came in 2012 when we purchased the practices in Norwich and Mulbarton belonging to Tony Stokes.

Deciding to look after farm animals

When first I came to Beccles there were about twelve veterinary practices in the area and every practice was mixed and treated farm animals, horses, dogs and cats. At the present time our practice called The Three Rivers Group has six premises, sixteen vets and employs about fifty people. Eleven vets do purely small animal work and five vets do only farm work. For the farms in the Broads National Park area there now only four practices that do farm work, and two of those are part of the same business. The survival of farm animal veterinary work in East Anglia has been due to a small number of dedicated people with the passion for this type of work. Also The Broads area itself and the preservation of the marsh grassland areas has helped in ensuring that we could maintain a profitable farm animal practice. But our practice did eventually split into farm only and small animal only. This was so that all the vets could keep abreast with the pace of change as technology and knowledge increased. It was becoming more and more difficult to be able to keep up with the whole range of veterinary science. So in 2010 we made the decision to stop doing equine work and concentrate on farm work and small animal work. The other veterinary practices around were quite glad of our decision because equine work was more popular than the farm work. After we made that change the practice has continued to progress and grow. One of the unique problems in East Anglia was that it wasn’t very stock dense, and if we were to continue with farm work in a proper and professional way we needed to have enough work firstly to attract best farm vets to come and work for us, and secondly to be able to make it a profitable business. Because of the way East Anglia is laid out it means that we do have to travel vast distances between farms, and this has meant even more importantly, that we have had to change the way we provide veterinary services. Farmers have now become more like paramedics as we have trained them to be able to deal with lots of the things that in 70’s and 80’s a vet would have been called out to do. And our emphasis is now on prevention of disease rather than treating disease, which has led to a completely new way of looking at running farm animal practices especially in areas which are not livestock dense. So that’s one of the reasons why we stopped doing equine work in 2010.

Changes afoot

I think that the aspirations of the vets within profession have changed greatly. They don’t really want to be involved in the finance, administration, and management of any practice. They just really want to do their veterinary work and not have those worries. But this has led to difficulties in the number of practices up and down the country in terms of succession into partnerships. And in our case it led to us joining a larger organisation called Independent Vetcare (IVC) in 2016. This was initially a large change and one that we were concerned might not work very well, but as it’s turned out it was a good decision to make. It has allowed the vets within the practice to get on with doing their veterinary work without the distraction of running the business. When I first came to Beccles to start work things were much more different than in Devon. The farm work here was very traditional and not as advanced as the work I had been doing on farms in Devon. It was very much led by being called out to sick animals, with no emphasis on preventing disease or health planning. It was a reactive practice responding to a farmer’s request to help. I set about changing that and started to introduce the concept of disease prevention and health planning to our farmers. There was initially some scepticism but they generally came round to the idea and then became enthusiasts as they could see the economic benefits to their farm business. There was also the benefit for the health and welfare of the animals. So a win-win situation all round. Throughout the country other vets were doing the same thing and farmers were becoming much more demanding of their vets in terms of the services they provided. This caused a change in many mixed practices because on the farm side vets found it difficult to keep up with the new demands from farmers as well as keeping up with the increase in their small animal and equine work. The consequence of this was that many practices started to give up doing farm work. I could never have envisaged when I qualified that a laptop or a tablet would become an essential part of my equipment on farm visits. But that is the reality of today’s situation and in the modern farm vet’s life.

Looking after the farm animals then and now

In order to be able to provide a thorough service our vets work from home rather than the traditional practice of working from a central hub with a radius of 20 -30 miles to cover. In our case there wouldn’t be enough work for us to make it viable, so our vets are dotted around Norfolk and Suffolk, work from home, which leads to being the most efficient way in which we can run. The vets come in for meetings, to stock up their cars and medicine chests, and sort out various other things, but generally speaking they work from home and tend to have their regular farm clients within their catchment area. There’s been quite a lot of changes with the environmental schemes that have taken place on the marshes in the last few years and this has had a lot of effect and changed the types of diseases we’ve seen. When I first came to the area there were a lot of dairy farmers, and most of them were autumn calving. They would traditionally put the heifers, and sometimes dry cows, out onto the marshes in the summer months.

We used to see a lot of cases of mastitis and New Forest Eye which were fly transmitted. But since then the number of dairies has decreased and there’s been an increase in the number of beef animals that graze on the marshes. Around the year 2000 the dairy industry went through very difficult times and there were a number a sheep that came down from up North to graze on the marshes. I had always been surprised when I came here from Devon that we didn’t have any liver fluke on the marshes because it was a perfect environment for the disease. But following on from the sheep coming down, and the changes that occurred after that, we started to then see liver fluke. And from around 2004 it has become an endemic disease in East Anglia. TB has also become a huge issue. We are very lucky in this area though as we’re currently TB free. But we do constantly have scares, and everybody’s very sensitive to cattle from outside the TB free area coming in to graze. And rules have been put in place now to ensure that TB isn’t introduced into the marsh areas so it’s very reliant on local farmers to take up marsh lettings.

Final stitch Caesarean

 

Ultrasound on a cow

Changes in the marsh environment

The management of the marshes has made things much better, especially for wildlife and birdlife. Birds especially needed a much wetter environment and so the water tables were raised. The pond snail which is the parasitic intermediate host for the liver fluke thrives in water puddles and wet conditions so this has contributed to the rise of liver fluke. Conservation has also changed the nature of the grazing a bit because there are much harsher and spikier marsh grasses growing out there now which are very difficult for cows to digest. So this is in effect has had a reduction in the nutritional benefits derived from some of the marshes. Some of the marshes are privately owned but the majority are let each year. However the price of letting the marshes has increased, and has become really quite expensive. Some of this is due to competition nowadays from people who want to graze horses, certainly charitable organisations which quite often have very good funding are using the marshes to graze horses. I see this as a bit of a problem area because horses graze much closer to the ground than the cattle who always leave a few inches of grass cover. And also horses are quite selective in their grazing as they won’t graze where they’ve dunged! And so the area of the pastures and the nature of the pastures have changed with it being used for horses. I’m also not sure that the type of grazing that you see, where horses have been on the marshes, is the best for the wildlife. However there has to be a balance between the environment and farming. Like any business farming has to be profitable in order for it to continue. Farmers generally have been custodians of the environment. So I have never really known why they sometimes get such a bad press. All the ones I’ve ever met are very pro the environment and the countryside looks the way it does through their hard work. But as I said at the end of the day there has to be a balance, so that either by the way of subsidies or stewardship schemes grazing these areas of marshland which are nutritionally not as good as the upland areas has to be made financially viable. I do think it was absolutely fantastic that the marshes were saved though. There was in the 1960’s or early 70’s another push to plough up lots of marshes, because arable farming for a period of time had became extremely profitable when we first joined the Common Market. There were large and loud protests mainly from environmentalists, which were successful so the marshes were retained. I think that was great for farming in the long term because arable farming like all things goes in cycles and this type of farming was not going to be king forever. And it was also good for the environment, it was good for diversity of farming, and it was certainly good for vets. Without the marshes being there as a staple if you like for farm vet practices, it is quite possible that there would be no farm animal practices around now. There have been changes in terms of how things are organised and the crops grown, like the introduction of maize silage, but the grassland pastures in our area overseen by The Broads Authority have been a mainstay for livestock farming.

Farming practice today

So we’ve got 600 plus farmers as clients. We have some very large farmers; we have some medium sized farmers, small farmers and even some smallholders. The breakdown of the practice now would be probably 27% dairy cattle 60% beef cattle 5% sheep and 7% smallholdings with only about 1% of pig work. Family farms are still around and some have grown and been very successful. In many cases the family farms that have done best are those that have invested for future generations, who are keen to become more involved with farming. But I do think that all farms now are run much more on a business footing than ever before. There are less mixed farms than when I first came to the area. Farms would have the dairy side as well as beef side, they might have a few sheep, pigs, some chickens, and possibly do a bit of contracting work as well. That’s all changed now. Farmers have become more specialised, a bit like vets have become, and have had to decide which is their main enterprise, be that beef, dairy, or arable. I think in a way you can understand that because it can make for a much easier business model. With a mixed farming enterprise you always had something that was doing OK if one area of the farm was not very profitable. In the current volatile world that we live in you’re mainly dealing with one species or one aspect of farming. But I do detect a return to some of the old systems so it’s funny how things go in circles! I can remember when I first came to the area that a lot of the dairy farms were managing on marsh grazing and were producing grass silage which was sufficient for the yields that they were producing at that time. Then came the influx of Holstein cows and demand for increased yields, and the pastures couldn’t produce this as the grass silage was not of sufficient quality. There was a turn around and maize silage came along. This was a great source of higher nutritional value for the cows and enabled some of these higher yields to be maintained, then came mixer wagons which allowed farmers to use by-products. We’re now seeing a change back again and this I think is in some way consumer and supermarket driven where retailers and consumers don’t want to see high yields and intensive farming. They would rather see cattle producing milk from grass and a more extensive type of production. This obviously leads to lower yields, but provided the consumer is happy to pay the increased costs of production then undoubtedly it’s a very nice way to run a dairy farm.

So yes we have seen a bit of a resurgence in traditional breeds and also a change in the way farmers sell their produce. There’s much more interaction now with consumers via social media but also from farm shop sales and farm doorstep sales. I do think this has been a good thing and similar to my experience with pick your own when I was younger when you were dealing directly with the consumer and avoiding the middle market. And this can sometimes be a very good way of supplementing the farm income. But when you do this you must make sure that the consumer is completely happy with your production methods and knows how you are actually producing the milk or producing the meat

The highs and lows of farm practise on the marshes

You know what? A summer’s day on Haddiscoe Island – well there’s no better place to be! There was recently a large environmental drainage scheme which temporarily caused a lot of inconvenience, but it has made a huge difference and now you can go there and just sit and watch the wildlife. Watch the herons and watch the waders. It’s just a fantastic place to be. Conversely, go there in the middle of a thunderstorm and it’s a scary place to be. It is a land of contrasts and there is no shelter! When you’re in the middle of the island you can’t see any signs of human life, and it can be very challenging if you have to do a caesarean down on those the marshes. If you have very sick animals you have to deal with what you can with what have at your disposal. Catching animals can be fun on the marshes and because there are no solid boundaries they will quite happily dive into a dyke and get across to the other side. So it does have its challenges, but overall I really enjoy it because I have moments when I sit down, look at the countryside and ponder on what a lucky person I am to be here. I remember once, in a particular area of marshes Oulton Broad way, making a visit to a sick cow. I was struck by the fact that there was no sound and I couldn’t hear birds singing. It just seemed completely eerie and I noticed the change immediately. I spoke to the farmer who said they’d had an influx of mink with pretty devastating effects on the surrounding wildlife. I can remember the coypu eradication also.

Some memorable people on the marshes

There were coypu catchers down on the marshes. I remember seeing the animals that had been caught laid out on trailers, on their backs, and their great big teeth sticking out! And I also remember some of the notable marshmen. There was Bob and Brian Mace at Haddiscoe and also the Harvey brothers amongst many others. It’s an interesting life being a marshman because you have to go out in all weathers to check on and count the stock. See that there’s none ill or lame whatever the weather. And once again I’m sure from their point of view there can be very very difficult times but also very very rewarding times

My plans for the future of the practice

The practice now has the opportunity of lots of investment because it is part of Independent Vetcare (IVC), which at the current time has around 500 practices in the UK, with another 200 members in Europe. As part of that, on the small animal side, we’re having a CT scanner installed next month which is involving a huge budget and one which we certainly couldn’t have afforded as our partnership. As part of joining IVC I was very conscious of the fact that I wanted to join an organisation that would ensure that the farm animal side was secure and safe. Independent Vet Care are committed to developing the farm animal side of their practices. My role now has moved on. I still do some clinical work but I have a national role and I also provide advice helping with new computer programs and new health planning initiatives. We are about to launch a new graduate academy for farm vets which I think is going to be a great thing because professionalism in farming now is at such a level that when new graduates first enter the farming world it can be a bit daunting for them. So having a year to ground them and to ensure that they are well equipped to deal with the modern farming world is going to be a good thing. But it is only something that can be done by a larger organisation because obviously it is quite a costly investment. I think as long as I continue to enjoy what I do then I want to be involved in veterinary care for a few more years! And I suppose some people are fortunate in that their job is their hobby as has been the case with me, I’ve always enjoyed my job and enjoyed what I was doing with mixed practice. I relished watching All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot, and my experiences have reinforced this. When I became a purely farm animal vet and was able to put my skills into this I must say I thoroughly enjoyed everything and the wonderful interaction with the farming community.

Recollections I’d like to share

I think first of all the things that motivated me when I was younger and, the experiences of help given me by the previous generation of vets have guided me greatly along the way. Many of the previous generation of vets and farmers were affected by brucellosis which is now eradicated. But it was a particularly debilitating disease, and had chronic health problems for any vet who caught it as a result or their work. And many of them had to retire from general practice and go into research or go into academia. The practice at March which Noble Oakley & Jackson ran is a testament to this. Geoff Oakley left the practice and went to work for a pharmaceutical company and was instrumental in helping to develop the first vaccine for Husk or lungworm, probably one of the most important vaccines ever developed for the farming world. It was marketed as Dictol. Peter Jackson went on to teach at Edinburgh and then Cambridge and became senior lecturer and Emeritus Physician at Cambridge Vet School and wrote text books. Both Peter and Geoff were really helpful to me in those early years. I think now with the current way things are, a 12 year old would never be able to go round in general practice with a vet as I myself did all those years ago.

Those days have gone, but it was great for me. I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. And then when I moved to Suffolk and saw practice at Bungay, with Monks & Redmond mainly alongside Dick Monks, he was also really helpful to me and sort of took me under his wing. And did I learn a tremendous amount! In my first job Donald Ellicot, helped me enormously. I think he is still doing a bit of practice now at The Vale Veterinary Group (which used to be Griffiths & Partners). Alan Bartley also helped me tremendously in the first few years of my career. That support was invaluable. I think it’s very relevant today because we have such problems with recruitment. This isn’t just the veterinary profession it’s the medical profession as well. Both professions are really struggling to find young people wanting to come in to do the work. It’s difficult. I don’t think it’s down to one particular thing but it is a very challenging area and we certainly don’t know all the reasons for it. I think some of it is that modern students going into vet college are extremely academic. The selection system has tended to promote those people to vet college who have the highest academic qualifications. This I suppose is a way of sorting them out, but I think sometimes they find it quite difficult when they get into general practice. There’s a recent survey that said that a lot of those that qualified were looking at it as perhaps a job to do for five years and then they could go off and do something else. In our time it was looked upon as a vocation and that’s what you did. I think the out of hours workload both for doctors and vets has been a difficult thing to put into modern context.

The modern vet’s world is so different in the small animal side of things. In the cities there are out of hours centres, so vets are working nine to five. Obviously in the farm animal world this is never going to happen. So vets coming in to farm animal practice have to be content that they are going to have to do their share of the out of hours work and sometimes that commitment doesn’t fit in with modern thoughts and ideas. I also think pressures on all professionals have increased tremendously. There’s huge client expectations now. In the small animal world there’s client expectations from the things that they see on television and all the new technology that’s available to treat things. And on the farm side there’s the same expectation because you’re dealing with somebody’s livelihood. You’re really helping towards and being responsible for, making sure that business is profitable.

Facebook I think is relevant these days but mainly in the small animal side and companion animal medicine. It’s very difficult as all modern businesses have to interact with social media, but it’s also an important part of what makes the world go round now. It can be a very harsh environment and that can have quite difficult personal problems. You know we do now have to try and train young vets to be able to cope with that and I think they are disappointed sometimes because they have such ideals of doing their job well. It’s bad enough for them to accept if something doesn’t go right but unfortunately when you’re dealing with living organisms things don’t always go to plan. And when they get problems with social media that can be very very difficult for them to handle and certainly it’s an area where practices need to have much more support. I think in a way it’s helpful when you are part of a larger organisation because they do have people who help with social media and who do help with welfare problems. I think because it’s an academic gateway into vet’s school now that possibly some of the students entering may not really know quite what the job entails. It may be easy to get in because you’re academically clever, but you may not quite know what it’s going to be like when you get out! And I’m sure that is why there are a lot of vets who qualify and then don’t remain in the profession very long. So we have some real issues to cope with and we’re not alone in that. We have relied tremendously on overseas vets coming in to help out. Another factor that hasn’t helped is that a lot of our colleges for economic reasons have taken to training overseas graduates. So whilst in theory there’s a certain number of graduates coming out each year into the profession, in fact a substantial amount of these newly qualified graduates are actually from overseas and just trained over here. They then go back to their own country to work. So it is a difficult problem, and it’s not something that’s going to be solved overnight. But it’s something that we as a profession are going to have to address.

Before we go

Before we finish I must mention some of the amazing people that I have been fortunate to work with, when I joined the practice in 1980 there were three vets and three staff members, Denise used to do the reception and send out the invoices, the vets used to do the invoices themselves (often in the evening), our wives helped out at reception and took the calls out of hours. We had Gordon Gower who used to turn his hand to everything in the practice from animal handling to maintenance.

When I took over the role of senior partner in 1996 it was initially a very daunting task but one that I soon began to enjoy mainly because of the team around me. The support and enthusiasm of the staff helped me to set up two new practices and purchase another two so that during my time as senior partner we grew from two practices to six and went from five to sixteen vets employed.

I also decided early on that a Practice Manager was essential, although at that time not many veterinary practices had managers. Sarah Edge took to the role with enthusiasm and her insight and judgement were invaluable to me over the years. Like Sarah, Karen Flynn who heads our accounts department has been with us for 35 years and has been an essential part of the smooth running of the practice.

We have 16 members of staff who have been with us for 15 to 25 years and without them my role would have been impossible. My partners Nick Hope and Mark Norton have given their help, hard work and support during my time as senior partner. I learnt a great deal from some very talented vets from all over the world who came to work at our practice. As I approach retirement I am confident that the practice is in good hands.

Mike Bardsley (b. 1951) talking to WISEArchive on 20th March 2018 in Shadingfield, Beccles

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