The country vet, along with the priest, teacher, doctor and creamery manager, was always a pillar of rural life.
James Herriot, the pen name of Alf Wright, who practised among the farmers of the Yorkshire Dales, once claimed that vets will never grow rich but will have a life of endless interest and variety.
He shared his experiences of treating animals and observing farmers and their way of life in many of his 18 books which sold 50 million copies in 20 countries.
All Creatures Great and Small was the most famous of those works and was adapted for two films and became a hugely successful BBC television series which millions of people viewed.
Wright — who only started writing when he was 50 — remained in veterinary practice long after his books had made him known world-wide.
But that did not make any difference to the country people he met. “If a a farmer calls me with a sick animal he couldn’t care less if I were George Bernard Shaw,” he once said.
Wright, who was born 100 years ago this year, practised during a period of great change in agriculture.
Tractors replaced old work horses, while ancient cures were also giving way to antibiotics and other drugs as remedies for sick animals.
A large-scale shift in veterinary practice saw an increase in the treatment of dogs, cats and other pets. Group practicies were developed and more women qualified as practitioners.
Today, veterinary science remains the core of a vet’s professional calling — just as it was during the career of Alf Wright, who qualified as a vet in 1939 and died in 1995, aged 78.
More than 3,000 delegates attending the five-day World Buiatrics Congress (WBC), which opened at the Convention Centre in Dublin yesterday, will surely have read about what life was like as a country vet in his day.
Buiatrics is the study of cattle and their health and the conference, held every two years, is being attended by vets, researchers and experts from more than sixty-five countries and is expected to boost the Irish economy by some €5m.
It is the official gathering of the World Association of Buiatrics and is held in a different part of the world every two years. It was last held here in 1986.
Hosted by Veterinary Ireland, the aim of the scientific programme is the promotion of animal health and welfare as a means of progressing towards a more sustainable agriculture.
It places particular emphasis on herd health as a means of achieving that goal. Presentations by Irish veterinarians will reflect on this country’s success in managing disease eradication programmes.
There will be 32 keynote lectures and 300 oral presentations. The sharing of the latest scientific updates and clinical techniques extends to 700 poster presentations. There will also be workshops, symposia and round table discussions.
Michael Sexton, head of the organising committee for the congress, said that consumers and retailers are showing an ever increasing interest in cow health and welfare.
“Vets play a big role with their farmer clients in maintaining the health and welfare of cattle herds throughout the world,” he said.
Mr Sexton said that the advisory, clinical and scientific expertise of vets is also at the heart of Ireland’s superb track record in food safety and quality through the veterinary inspectorate services.
These are supporting the positive reputation of the food and agricultural industry — a sector which is playing an important part in Ireland’s economic revival.
“Cattle — both dairy and beef — are an important part of that, particularly given that our temperate climate favours grass-based livestock farming,” he said.
Mr Sexton, who is in a mixed practice, Riverview Veterinary Group, based in Bandon, Co Cork, said the Irish dairy and beef sector is worth protecting in many ways, not just economic, but also because it is a way of life for many farm families.
“This in turn reinforces the importance of the work done by Irish vets in the eradication of animal diseases and in measures to defend Ireland from the threat of new disease outbreaks,” he said.
Ireland is one of the most important food exporting nations in the world. It has a long standing reputation for the quality produce that comes from the national cattle herd.
Health and welfare is of tremendous importance for the animals themselves, the people who work with them and for the nation as a whole.
With the successful eradication of brucellosis, the reduction in TB rates, the advent of Animal Health Ireland and other initiatives, the country is certainly in the vanguard of cattle health.
Animal health issues are also high on the European Parliament agenda, according to Mairead McGuinness, who officially opened the Veterinary Ireland conference and annual general meeting in Mullingar, Co Westmeath, last November.
“The Environment Committee is working to ensure better access, availability and safety of veterinary medicines while also achieving a single market for pharmaceutical products,” said Ms McGuinness.
“The role of the veterinary practitioner in managing herd health and assisting farmers with disease prevention on their farms is more important than ever.
“Vets and farmers are part of the food supply chain, which starts with healthy animals in a healthy environment. Consumers need to know that this vital link in the chain works in an effective way,” she said.
One of the aims of Veterinary Ireland, established in 2001, with a pedigree dating back to 1888, is to facilitate the profession in its commitment to improving the health and welfare of the animals under its care.
It has more than 1,500 members and is currently headed by president Mairead Wallace-Pigott, Millstreet Veterinary Group, a mainly dairy but mixed practice in north west Cork that also includes care for companion animals.
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